No prizes for guessing the number one scandal of 2011

Top ten political scandals of 2011

Top ten political scandals of 2011

The history books will only remember one scandal from 2011. But this year wasn't just about phone-hacking. We've had our fair share of people not doing what they're supposed to. Sometimes it cost them their jobs, sometimes they survived. Some are long gone, some are still rumbling on. Let us know whether you think we've got these in the right order…

By Alex Stevenson

(Last year's position in brackets)

10 (2) A scandalous new year hangover

OK, so this one really was a hanger-on from last year. But former Labour minister Phil Woolas' fall from grace, the result of some rather dodgy electioneering, was what caused the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election which took place in early January. It was a complex race in a marginal seat, which ended with a surprising Labour hold for Debbie Abrahams. So much for Elwyn Watkins, the Lib Dem candidate, who didn't do nearly enough to seize his unlikely second chance in the seat. That was partly because of frustration at the coalition. But it was probably more to do with the fact he had been tainted by the mudslinging himself, however undeservedly.

09 (–) Aidan Burley's Nazi party

From new year to the end of 2011, and the very recent firing of ministerial aide Aidan Burley. He was given his marching orders over his rather unwise participation in a Nazi-themed stag party in the French Alps earlier this year. It's not yet clear whether Burley actually hired the SS-style uniform worn by the stag, but one thing is certain: his political antennae should have been much more finely tuned to the dangers of participating in such utterly immature behaviour. With the French police now investigating what appears to be a matter of lawbreaking, this is a scandal which might get worse and worse for the Cannock Chase MP come 2012.

08 (7) Expenses

It's testament to the scale of the expenses scandal that, two years after it first broke, it continues to have an impact on this top ten. In the last 12 months we saw jail sentences for a number of MPs and peers whose allowances claims were judged to be so outrageous as to be downright criminal. They include former Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, who were sent to jail for 16 and 18 months respectively, and Conservative peers Lord Taylor of Warwick and Lord Hanningfield, who got nine and 12 months. "It was an outrage," Matthew Sinclair of the TaxPayers' Alliance said. Just about sums it up, really.

07 (–) Alan Johnson, his wife, and a beyond-the-call-of-duty police officer

It was a major blow for the opposition. Ed Miliband had chosen Alan Johnson to be his shadow chancellor and, despite a rather tentative start to the job, the former home secretary was seen as a heavyweight in Labour's shadow Cabinet. But then it all went wrong: he quit the post, citing family reasons, in January, opening the way for Ed Balls to take over.

It subsequently emerged that Johnson's wife had had an affair with one of his police protection officers, Paul Rice, who paid for the indiscretion with his job in November. It was claimed Rice was also in a relationship with Johnson's constituency assistant. This whole sorry mess demonstrated one thing: not all scandals have to be committed by politicians for them to have a massive impact on careers. Johnson has had a much quieter 2011 than he had planned, and it wasn't even his fault.

06 (–) Bordering on the unacceptable

For a while it looked like Theresa May's political career might be about to ground to a juddering halt. The home secretary was under intense pressure this autumn after it emerged that border checks had been lifted over the summer, potentially allowing thousands of illegal immigrations and criminals into the country. Ordinary mortals might have quailed under the scrutiny, but not May. She insisted she had not been notified of the relaxation of checks.

Still, it felt a lot like a Cabinet minister resignation was only days away. But then, in a Today programme interview, her chief rival – the sacked border force chief Brodie Clark – dropped the ball. "Perhaps I should have more thoroughly checked what the home secretary knew or did not know," he conceded aloud. Perhaps, indeed.

May arguably enters 2012 with her reputation enhanced, having survived a major scandal with aplomb.

05 (–) Chris Huhne's speeding points

The Liberal Democrat most under threat from the shadow of scandal this year was energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne, who faces a police investigation over newspaper allegations that he tried to dodge speeding points on his licence. His estranged wife Vicky Pryce has claimed that he asked her to take the points on his behalf. Officials probing the issue are taking a long time to work out whether Huhne should face charges or not; we'll have to wait until next year's top ten to see whether this one actually results in a second Lib Dem Cabinet resignation.

04 (3) Phone-hacking: Politicians

What made phone-hacking so significant for Britain was that, in reality, it was more than one scandal. Revelations about dodgy journalists preying on innocent celebrities proved so important precisely because they infected not just the media but other important parts of public life as well.

Westminster might have been insulated completely had it not been for the obsequious relationships which had developed between politicians and the press. Both Labour and the Conservatives were guilty of rubbing up to Rupert Murdoch too closely, but David Cameron had the worst of it: he had hired the News of the World's former editor to be his director of communications, for heaven's sake.

Coulson resigned in January. The move was probably a wise one: the political fallout for Cameron would have been far worse had he still been in post later in the year.

03 (3) Phone-hacking: Police

Amid the rush of resignations at the peak of the phone-hacking scandal this summer was that of the Metropolitan police's commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson. Despite the looming Olympics, he had decided to shoulder responsibility for the shame brought upon the Met by phone-hacking – and underlined exactly how bad the scandal was for the police in the process.

Their cosy arrangements with journalists were called into question again and again as more questions emerged about the integrity of police officials. Sir Paul was not as innocent as he claimed. The appropriateness of his relationship with Neil Wallis, a former executive editor at the News of the World who had gone on to work with the Met in his capacity as a consultant, typified the grey areas and blurred lines which, many felt, senior Met officers had taken advantage of.

Special mention has to be given to the Met's own "dodgy geezer", John Yates, whose utter inability to realise he was dropping himself in it provided a jaw-dropping three hours for incredulous MPs on the home affairs committee. This was a scandal which moved quickly from the deadly serious to the ridiculous.

02 (–) Liam Fox's Werrittygate

Here it is, then: the only Cabinet resignation of the year. That's right. This scandal really did result in someone having to quit their post in government.

Liam Fox was forced to quit after it emerged his best man, Adam Werritty, had been profiting off the back of his close relationship with the defence secretary. Images of him on foreign trips with Fox, combined with odd stories about Werritty claiming to be an 'adviser' to the defence secretary, built up a picture of a man in the twilight, just offstage, having the air of the powerful.

The anger grew, the suspicions mounted. Another display of political unity was attempted in the Commons as Fox claimed he was being attacked for the wrong reasons. But eventually, at the end of a week dominated by almost nothing else, he finally realised that he had no choice but to step down. The following week Fox apologised to the Commons – but he used the occasion to launch another bitter attack against the press who had exposed his failings. It was an extraordinarily undignified performance.

The Fox affair shone a light on the dark arts of lobbying, another part of the Westminster power machine which the public understand very little of. Added impetus was given to the coalition's plans to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists in a bid to make the process more transparent. Would that have stopped Werritty's activities? Perhaps. We'll have to wait until next year to see whether Fox's departure actually changes the way Whitehall works for good.

01 (3) Phone-hacking: Press

Some scandals affect individual careers. Bigger ones have the power to taint a whole party. The phone-hacking scandal looks like it could have the power to fundamentally change the way a key pillar of British society works.

The press matters. It is tasked with holding to account those whose decisions affect us and those whose lives influence our own. During those shocking days in the heat of midsummer the phone-hacking scandal shone a light on the most unacceptable ways in which it carries out those duties. Britain was left asking the question: who guards the guardians?

Such is the story's momentum that it almost doesn't matter that the spark which started the fire, the claim that private investigator Glenn Mulcaire hacking into murder victim Milly Dowler's mobile, wasn't entirely correct. It's now believed Milly's voicemails were automatically deleted, and not by cynical journalists. Too late for the News of the World, which the Murdochs closed down in a bid to end the furore. Enough had emerged to prompt a massive re-evaluation of journalistic ethics. The families of murder victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were believed to have been hacked, for example. It's time to think again.

This process has barely started. Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry is providing a steady stream of news stories, each one of which serves to bang another nail into the coffin of the old way of doing things. Politicians have been emboldened to cast aside the Murdochs and speak up for themselves. They are now pressing for reform in the same way that the press demanded change after the expenses scandal.

Last year's number one scandal was Wikileaks, which ruffled diplomatic feathers the world over. "It was," we wrote, "perhaps the broadest political scandal of the century". That still seems accurate. But it did not have the same impact on British public life that the phone-hacking scandal is having, and will have, on the country in which we all live – and read about – every day.