Glen Newey · Byers Hits the Ermine Ceiling
It has been a Grand Guignol for the moral majority. Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon, if not Margaret Moran, belong within the inner ring of the Blairite rump. All four are leaving the Commons for good on dissolution. Apparently Monday evening’s PLP meeting saw a mass outpouring of grief and loathing, as backbenchers who aren’t standing down waxed bilious at having their re-election hopes shafted. Hoon and Hewitt may have calculated, after the fiasco of their January putsch against the PM, that they had little left to lose. Their places on the red benches in Another Place have been cancelled. The one Tory MP suckered by Channel 4, Sir John Butterfill, has also hit the ermine ceiling.
The spectacle of a man who is at once self-aggrandising and wheedling uplifts few souls. Byers, whose relationship with the truth as a minister threatened at times to end in divorce, has withdrawn his claims to have saved National Express hundreds of millions by nobbling Andrew Adonis, or to have leaned on Peter Mandelson, the mooted Tesco food-reg fixer. In one of the great acts of political self-sacrifice, he has also turned himself in to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Channel 4’s Dispatches programme comes of an honourable line of investigative journalism. But it’s one thing to expose existing scandals to the public gaze, another to rig up a Potemkin village for the purposes of entrapment. The entrapment, in turn, is mainly for entertainment. It typifies the symbiosis between moralism, prurience and lucre in the UK commercial press. An old curtain-twitcher calls in the police, claiming to be disgusted by the antics of the couple in the house opposite. The police stare out of the window for a while and tell him they can’t see anything. ‘You can if you climb up onto the wardrobe and use binoculars.’ The situation is actually worse than this. Clearly the Dispatches people went to extraordinary lengths to bring the spectacle to the screen. And the scandal itself was created for that purpose. As with ‘reality’ TV, the show indulges not just public voyeurism, but also its own exhibitionism.
No doubt it’s sickening to know that an apparatchik like Byers who, in another life, might have attained middle-managerial rank in a pet food factory, can swank around with his Blackberry and blag a crateful of wonga from credulous captains of industry. It’s enough to make one rend one’s sackcloth in righteous grief. Hewitt, Byers, Hoon etc. are pitching for north of 3K or 4K a day (expenses extra). We, the viewers, have to get out of bed for far less. How comforting then to know, as the grafters on screen don’t, that in fact it’s a stitch-up. For those stuck, willy-nilly, in a hair-shirt, moral frotteurism can prove irresistible.
As with the expenses dégringolade last year, gross hucksterism prompts calls for more rules. There is clearly a case for regulating political lobbying more generally, though as Byers’s Mandy boast shows, haggling and poking can go on at the back door. In any case, Byers et al. didn’t have to declare an interest to the Register, since at that point they were merely in talks about talks. Due process, however bolstered, will prove a dead letter if it can be trumped by moral outrage from the press or the telly. In a tartuffean Olympiad, two strands of bad faith coalesce: voters’ resentment of politicians, and politicians’ fear of voters. Of course, they also fear media organisations like Channel 4, which is a business. In shaming MPs for public sport, it panders to the same commercial impulses as the politicians it pillories.