WestminsterWatch - July 2013

As scandal sweeps through the corridors of power again, Toby Craig surveys the political scene

School for scandal
Fifty years ago last month saw the culmination of one of Westminster’s defining scandals, the Profumo Affair. On 5 June, 1963, Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, finally resigned from Cabinet, having lied about an affair with Christine Keeler. Sex, lies, espionage; it had everything. One might be forgiven for thinking that it would also serve as a lesson for the next generation of politicians, and the one after that, and the one after. But alas, when it comes to the lawmaking fraternity, scandal is never that far from the surface. And so it proved as the whiff of impropriety wafted through Westminster and Whitehall once more.

“No.10 rocked by secret love affair: ‘Stunned’ PM holds crisis talks...” screamed a Mail on Sunday headline on 2 June. It didn’t tell us who was having this secret love affair (probably because it’s secret, though the Mail cited that perennial nuisance “legal reasons”), but did inform us that it has “potentially significant political implications” for the Prime Minister. We can only speculate as to whether or not there is an actual story here, but doubtless social media will eventually reveal all. Twitter’s inhabitants, most sensibly, seem to be exhibiting a bit more reticence after Tugendhat J’s damning judgment in favour of Lord McAlpine against Sally Bercow. As well they might.

But of course, that wasn’t all. The sudden and unexpected resignation of the Tory whip by Patrick Mercer, along with an announcement that he would not defend his Newark seat at the next election, foreshadowed a Panorama programme into alleged undeclared, paid lobbying activities. It is alleged that he was paid by a (fake) lobbying firm to represent the interests of the Fijian Government. He set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group and tabled an Early Day Motion and a number of questions about Fiji, though it remains to be disclosed what precisely the payment was for and what ought to have been declared (Mercer claims he took money for work outside Parliament). He has referred himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. It is likely to mark a sad close to a distinguished career in public service, including a decorated army career, having served as a Colonel in the Sherwood Foresters.

News from the Commons was swiftly followed by a Sunday Times investigation into three Peers, which led to two being suspended from their parties and one resigning from his. Labour peers, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate and Lord Cunningham were suspended following allegations that they had agreed to take payment for lobbying activities, asking questions in Parliament or hosting events. They deny the allegations. Lord Laird, an Ulster Unionist Peer, was also alleged to have discussed payment to lobby on behalf of Fiji. He said he had been the victim of a scam.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these particular examples - and none of them look very good - they all help to create a public perception, further cultivated by the expenses scandal, that Parliamentarians are too often motivated by their own interests and not those of the public which they are supposed to represent. Whilst New Labour did not always take its own advice, Peter (now Lord) Mandelson was correct to note that it is not just about being whiter than white, but about being seen to be whiter than white.

Voters finding their voice
Politicians have to be in touch with the public in order to be relevant. At a time of significant cuts and reforms to frontline public services (for good or ill), these issues are wholly unnecessary and unwelcome distractions from the task at hand. As Ed Balls and Ed Miliband conducted their speaking tour on the welfare system (rowing back swiftly from the once sacrosanct universality of winter fuel payments), they might have struggled to tear attention away from scandal and the entrance of pleas in the phone-hacking investigation.

In that regard, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a good or bad thing that so many column inches have been dedicated to the badger cull and the same sex marriage debate, both of which have been absorbing parliamentarians’ time in recent weeks. Whilst it might detract from discourse about health, education, welfare and, yes, legal aid (which gets its very own space in Counsel this month, so is not covered here), WW thinks it can only be a good thing that people get more engaged on political issues which they feel passionately about. The rise in grassroots campaigning organisations like 38 Degrees, of social media campaigns and of ePetitions (Government hosted petitions which require 100,000 signatories to prompt consideration of a Parliamentary debate) are a welcome and further democratisation of the lobbying process; something which we can (and should) all engage in. This is truer still in marginal elections, in which no votes can be taken for granted.

The UKIP factor has meant that even in ostensibly safe seats, the electoral arithmetic is not as clear cut as it may previously have appeared. Whilst the mantra of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, still stands, it is also true that voters, (and particularly younger voters who do not tend to vote in very high numbers), can be more engaged by emotive issues. That may have gone some way in accounting for the Lib Dem surge after its vocal opposition to the Iraq War. With general election turnouts at only just over 65%, the broad engagement of a particular demographic could have wide-ranging effects on any eventual result.

The challenge for politicians of all stripes is how to engage the voters more in the political process by talking about issues which they care about. If the news is dominated by scandal and sleaze, whether real or perceived, the public is increasingly likely to wish a plague on both Houses and may switch off from the political process entirely.

So fifty years on from Profumo, what have we learned? It might switch them off from the important issues, it might disengage them from the political process, but the papers, and the public, still love a good scandal.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.