A spouse used to be considered an indispensable asset for a politician; but then not so long ago bank shares looked like a good investment. For the moment the most notorious of the sub-prime other halves remains Richard Timney, husband and parliamentary aide to the home secretary. On the London Review blog last month Jenny Diski wrote that for the MPs involved, the expenses scandal is ‘like being a grown-up caught picking your nose and eating it’. For Jacqui Smith, it was more a case of the entire country walking in on her husband having a wank. Then there’s Dennis Bates, who according to the Telegraph has been giving tax advice to his wife, the Labour MP Meg Munn, and several of her colleagues, including the foreign secretary, for £345 a pop, which they’ve been claiming on expenses. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – one of Bates’s former employers, as it happens – are said to be looking into it.
But the five-pound porn films, mates-rates tax-advice and all the rest of it look like very small beer when compared to the £344,000 that Tessa Jowell’s husband, David Mills, stands accused of receiving from Silvio Berlusconi in return for the well-spun evidence he gave in two corruption trials involving the Italian prime minister in the late 1990s. In February Mills was found guilty of corruption and given four and a half years in jail, though he remains at large pending appeal. A couple of weeks ago the judges in Milan who sentenced Mills published a 400-page document explaining their reasons for finding him guilty. In it they describe the ‘direct and personal’ involvement of Berlusconi in the creation of 64 offshore companies through which various illicit funds were channelled, including the 12 million dollar pay-off that the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi received for approving the legislation that allowed Berlusconi to take more or less untrammelled control of the Italian airwaves. As La Repubblica pointed out, if the prime minister hadn’t passed a law giving the country’s four highest office-holders immunity from prosecution, he’d now be heading for a jail cell alongside Mills.
Berlusconi, unsurprisingly, reacted with histrionic fury. He denounced the judges as leftist extremists and – in a typical piece of grandstanding – claimed that allowing them to preside over the Mills hearing was about as fair as letting José Mourinho referee a Milan derby. (Mourinho, in case you don’t know, is the manager of Inter Milan: their rivals AC Milan are owned by Berlusconi.)
Jowell and Mills separated in 2006, their marriage unable to bear the strain of the media interest in his prosecution. Obviously their estrangement has nothing to do with Jowell’s not wishing to be tainted by association with her husband, since she’s always insisted on his innocence, though it’s not clear how she can be so sure, since she also claimed that Mills never told her where the money came from and she didn’t think to ask. And now – toxic assets being dumped all round – Berlusconi’s wife has left him too. Unlike Jowell, who still apparently hopes that she and Mills might get back together once he’s free and all the fuss has died down, Veronica Lario is suing for divorce. Her reasons aren’t to do with bribery and corruption – unless you count a 72-year-old billionaire media magnate’s giving a diamond necklace to an aspiring starlet for her 18th birthday a form of bribery and corruption.
After the leader of the opposition, Dario Franceschini, rhetorically asked the public if they’d like to have their children brought up by Berlusconi, the prime minister assembled his sons and daughters to tell everyone what a wonderful father he’s been. When he later swore on their lives that he hadn’t consorted with a minor and that nothing di piccante or di riservato had happened between him and Noemi Letizia, Franceschini might have thought that only went to prove his point. No one believes Berlusconi’s promise that he’ll resign if revealed to have been lying; and not only because his coy euphemisms give him rather more wriggle-room than Bill Clinton allowed himself with his bald statement that he did not have sexual relations with that woman. Some relief from the saga of the Berlusconi divorce was briefly on offer thanks to the Italian-born first lady of France, and the nude portrait of her up for auction in Berlin.
With so much going on at home to occupy them, the Italian press haven’t found a great deal of room to cover such dowdy scandals as who paid for the clearing of whose moat in Lincolnshire. Search for ‘Douglas Hogg’ on La Repubblica’s website and you get nothing more recent than an article on ‘Major’s Cows’ from February 1997. The resignation of the speaker made the headlines here, however: ‘earthquake hits Westminster’; ‘the first time in 300 years’. Some papers are referring to the expenses business as ‘Tangentopoli UK’, after the system of bribery and corruption that dominated Italian politics until the Mani Pulite (‘clean hands’) operation of 1992-94 supposedly brought it to an end. But as the Communist daily Il Manifesto pointed out, the two don’t really begin to compare. It’s just that ‘the indignation threshold of Her Majesty’s subjects is lower than ours.’