The best scandals of the decade

Last decade we had sleaze. But the noughties gave us a wider range of political explosions.

By Ian Dunt

10: Some Currie, Major?

The events themselves may have occurred in the 80s, but the scandal came when the former junior health minister revealed her affair with the prime minister in 2002. The press was all over it, of course. No one could possibly count the number of personal stories which became acceptable news fodder because of John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ relaunch following Black Wednesday. Its moral tone meant any dirty little secret was fair game. For most of the public, the first thing the affair did was present the human mind with images it should never have to endure. You could see it in your head, and that, frankly, was an infringement of our collective human rights. Alas, the affair ended, as so many do, with bitterness and recrimination. Major was “one of the less competent prime ministers”, Currie said later. Not many jilted lovers get to use that comeback.

9: Smeargate

It was the end of Damian McBride, Brown’s special advisor, and Derek Draper, editor of LabourList. But the smeargate affair echoed more profoundly than most scandals due to two unique angles. The first, quite blatantly, was the exotic severity of the smears McBride and Draper had concocted. From sexual dysfunction to cross dressing, the terrible duo aimed poisonous and tragically unpleasant slurs at a range of Tories, including David Cameron, George Osborne and their respective wives. Like mean schoolchildren given the run of the country, there was genuine surprise and offence in Westminster at the time – something that does not come easily to a place so used to party politics and all its various methods of skulduggery. Its second unique quality lay in this very fact, that it opened the doors of Westminster’s secret machinations to the public. They did not like what they saw. Nor should they have. If we were ranking these scandals on the level of basic moral disgrace, this would be near the top of the list.

8: Derek Conway family outfit

Like a prologue to a novel on MPs’ expenses, the scandal of Derek Conway paying his son for parliamentary office work he wasn’t doing gave us an early glimpse of the year to come. It remains one of the most disgraceful instances of misused expenses. His son’s flamboyant dressing and hosting duties at fashionable London nightclubs sent the press pack into a kind of Bacchic frenzy. It was simply too perfect. Little did we know, it would one day seem quaint that we would even have the time to concentrate on one MP’s allowances.

7: The home secretary and the DNA test

It was so good it should have been a film. And then, of course, it became a film. For a very long time, the media stayed off the story of home secretary David Blunkett and his affair with Spectator-publishing American Kimberly Fortier. Even as he struggled for DNA tests on her two-year-old son and unborn child, Tony Blair took the adult approach, and concluded the matter had nothing to do with his political duties. It was only when Sir Alan Budd found he could “establish a chain of events linking Blunkett to the change in the decision” on a visa for Fortier’s nanny that it became a resigning issue. And resign he did. But the visa application controversy paled in the public mind compared to the spectacular love triangle the home secretary had become involved in, along with his lover and her husband.

6: Another one bites the pillow

This rather shameful and funny Sun headline really came to symbolise the shambolic Liberal Democrat leadership contest, in which Mark Oaten’s career was obliterated and Simon Hughes outed as bisexual. Was it pleasant? No. Oaten, formerly considered a big hitter in the Liberal Democrats and known throughout the Westminster village for his knife-edge 1997 win in Winchester, got the worst of it. He quit the campaign to replace Charlie Kennedy on January 19th 2006. Two days later he was resigning from the Lib Dem front bench after the News of the World revealed his relationship with a 23-year-old male prostitute. Sex scandals are par for the course in good old British democracy, of course. In France they just call it living. But this had a particularly extreme aspect. A week later the paper conducted an interview with former Polish ballet dancer ‘Tomasz’, who said Oaten requested “a gross act of humiliation which only a few punters ask for. It’s quite revolting really”. This was one of the few occasions when a sex scandal is strong enough to ruin a career without the press having to find a political angle to justify it. Not so for Simon Hughes, another leadership contender, who was outed by the Sun just four days later. Hughes had been asked about his sexuality before, and he had denied it, meaning he had lied, meaning the story was now political. “I gave a reply that wasn’t untrue but was clearly misleading and I apologise,” he said later. In the end the Lib Dems, tearing their hair out at the horrors the leadership contest had unleashed, opted for Sir Ming ‘safe pair of hands’ Campbell.

5: A good day to bury bad news?

An innocuous email, which revealed the true face of politics. “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury,” wrote Jo Moore, aide to transport secretary Stephen Byers as the Twin Towers fell on September 11th. “Councillors expenses?” Ironically, the scandal got less coverage than it might have if the most important historical incident of the century hadn’t occurred at the same time. Moore never actually wrote the phrase ‘good day to bury bad news’, but the sentiment was so strong, and so ably captured the lifeless, cynical caricature we have of the political class, that it entered the lexicon anyway.

4: Tennis and chat with ‘Tony’

It was the scandal to end all scandals. A prime minister was interviewed by the police, for the first time in British history. The financial workings of New Labour were thrown open. The police slowly, methodically, conducted an inquiry which probed into every corner of the establishment. But then, killjoys to the last, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided it would let it die. Even with the abrupt, dull ending, the story of cash for peerages rates highly on our list because it dominated the political agenda so completely for so long, and because the sense of scandal it left behind survived the lack of prosecutions which followed. It revealed one other thing too: the basic emptiness of the New Labour project. Having divorced itself from the unions as much as was politically and financially possible, Tony Blair explored other avenues for funding. Lord Levy, his long-standing friend and, laughably given his Zionist views, special envoy to the Middle East, was arrested but not charged for his role. What began as a suspicious link between the people nominated for peerages and the people donating huge sums of money to Labour, ended with stories of how Lord Levy would invite potential donors for tennis, with the chance for a quick chat with ‘Tony’ later. It dramatised how far from the left New Labour had come, from union members to tennis. Everyone escaped in the end, but few doubt the scandal hastened Blair’s departure from office, and precipitated the financial difficulties which could still see Labour lose the next election.

3: The Labour minister, her husband and the Italian PM

Anyone who knows anything about Italy’s barmy leader Silvio Berlusconi would be more than a little jittery about having their loved ones work for him. Especially if they were pretty and female. Former culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s husband is neither, but managed to get himself into trouble anyway. David Mills was investigated in Italy for money laundering and alleged tax fraud. Sir Gus O’Donnell began to investigate back in the UK on the basis that there was now a potential clash of interest between Jowell’s personal and ministerial life, but eventually concluded that, constitutionally, it is the prime minister who makes judgments on the ministerial code. That proved a highly fortunate decision for Jowell, given Blair had holidayed with the Italian in Sardinia two years earlier. Jowell and Mills, with the sort of timing which physically prevents you from feeling sympathy, suddenly decided to separate. Very few people, it is barely worth noting, took this at face value. On February 17th, 2009, an Italian court sentenced Mills to four years and six months in jail for accepting a bribe from Berlusconi and giving false evidence on his behalf.

2: Expenses

Where do you even start? The scandal that dwarfs all others. The moment Britain gave up on the mother of parliaments. There is the funny side, the duck houses and moats. There is the serious side, the fraudulent incidents. And then there was the cumulative effect. Parliament was discredited. MPs decided to quit at the next election en masse, changing the face of parliament. It ended numerous careers, not least of which Michael Martin’s, who became the first Speaker to be forced out in centuries. The lessons we take from it say more about the teller than the affair. Did it mean Britain had finally gone to the dogs? No. There are people in this country who say that at the drop of a hat. Did it mean all MPs were only in it for the money? No. But it did reflect the detachment of parliament from the country. Politicians had begun to spend all their time with other powerful people – businessmen, lawyers and bankers. They compared their earnings to this class, not to the country as a whole. It showed something qualitative had changed in British politics, and it had changed for the worse. We have begun to treat the expenses scandal as if it was the start of something. It wasn’t, of course. Parliament had gone down in voters’ expectations steadily since before Blair came to power, as a quick glance at turnout figures will tell you. But it confirmed every bad thought the public had about parliament. We still don’t know how the scandal will play out. The anti-parliamentary sentiment has become so strong a rather dangerous anti-politics has taken hold of the country, which could still lead us to a very dark place indeed. But one thing is certain. No one will have been proud of being a parliamentarian during 2009. They let us all down.

1: The weapons inspector and the rush to war

It would have been quiet where Dr David Kelly allegedly ingested painkillers and cut his wrists, by Harrowdown Hill on July 17th 2003. He left the house around 15:00 BST. His wife called the police just after midnight, and he was found, dead, the next morning. That is where the silence ended. One death shook British politics to its core. His tale encompassed everything: the war in Iraq, the conduct of the media, the behaviour of the government, and, most importantly, the way a man reacts when those he works for hang him out to dry. The Hutton inquiry which followed was an unprecedented moment in British political history. The conclusion was so clearly a whitewash that we tend to forget what came before it. But Lord Hutton set up a remarkable system. He got to work with stupefying speed and, crucially, appointed counsel to doggedly pursue angles. The screens showed astonishing documentary evidence of what was being discussed. The British public had simply never been so close to the inner workings of the government. That’s probably what made his conclusions so nonsensical, but such is the nature of the beast. Alistair Campbell, one of the New Labour pillars, quit for reason unconnected to the inquiry, although few people swallowed that. Greg Dykes, then director general of the BBC, also quit, after handing in his resignation on the mistaken assumption the BBC Trust would reject it. But this was not about resignations. It was about the treatment of a quiet, respectable and principled man. It was about media standards. And it was about a government which based its use of evidence on policy, rather than basing policy on evidence. Like some vast black hole, it sucked in all the other political issues preoccupying the country into its orbit. It was, quite simply, the biggest political scandal of the decade.