Decline and Fall
It now looks all but certain that Keith Vaz will lose the Labour whip. In 2016, the Sunday Mirror paid for an audio recording of a visit by two male sex workers to Vaz’s flat, where he appeared to offer to buy them cocaine. The Commons Committee on Standards’ long-delayed report on the exposé was published earlier this week.
The report makes for uncomfortable reading: Vaz’s defences, already flimsy, fall apart under the commissioner’s steady gaze. He claimed he had intended to discuss redecorating the flat with the men, and that he had never met them before; he allowed them into his flat at 11.30 at night without asking who they were, complimenting them as ‘always on time’. Their punctuality contrasted with the ‘other chap’, who ‘forgot the condom’. Vaz initially condemned the Mirror’s reporting as ‘heavily embellished and largely inaccurate’, and said that the matters were in any case ‘private and highly sensitive’ and undeserving of press intrusion. He now claims amnesia. The report judges his account to be ‘in parts, incredible’. One might quibble with ‘in parts’. Yet no one who has known the warping secrecy of the closet can read his answers without a twinge of sympathy; the scrabbling, absurd spirals of excuse and evasion, in all their preposterous flimsiness, are too familiar. Desire can make us strangers to ourselves, and fools.
The Committee stressed that it was not convened to investigate Vaz’s private life or sexual ethics, and rejected the claim that he should have recused himself from Select Committee hearings. Nonetheless, in part because of his evasive answers, and in part because of previous censures, the report recommended a six-month suspension from parliament. A suspension of that length would automatically trigger a recall petition; as parliament is about to be dissolved, he has escaped that ignominy. He will not, however, be standing in the general election on 12 December. Labour will have to find a new candidate for Leicester East, the constituency Vaz has represented since 1987.
The ‘sting’ itself was sordid, and its justification flimsy, but sex, drugs and hypocrisy sell papers. This was no Profumo affair, touching on state secrets; rumours, as well as direct testimony, of far worse behaviour by MPs regularly pump around the parliamentary estate. Lindsay Hoyle, one candidate to replace John Bercow as speaker, alluded to Westminster’s drug problem in his hustings speech; joint letters from parliamentary staff have urged the next speaker to get a handle on Westminster’s epidemic of harassment. Perhaps Vaz’s major error was to go off campus.
We want our politicians to be like us, but not too like us. We are suspicious if they are too virtuous, for we know that we ourselves are not, hungry for details to confirm our prejudices – that they’re all out for self-enrichment, vain grifters masquerading in the shabby rhetoric of duty. One reason to condemn Vaz might be the number of times in his career he has confirmed this impression. Both his contempt for the rules and the tabloid delight in the sting are symptoms of the slow evacuation of the concept of public life.
Vaz’s career is over, his fate decided for him. A number of other MPs, however, have announced their retirement from politics in the last few days, many of them women who have been targeted by torrents of personal abuse and threats to their family. Some have been advised by the police that it is too dangerous for them to hold open surgeries, or campaign door-to-door after dark. Others are leaving parliament because they feel their party has left them; the most prominent is Nicky Morgan, the last standard-bearer of David Cameron-style conservatism, who is quitting politics at the age of 46, in what would conventionally be considered the prime of her career. The exodus has prompted newspaper eulogies to the ‘last moderates’ and laments over our ideologically divided times; all assume that sharp ideological division is intrinsically negative.
Jess Phillips, who has received appalling threats of violence, intervened in the Commons debate on the election to ask the government to ensure that no one suggests ‘people like me are a danger to the country or from my side that people like you are.’ It was an understandable plea to a prime minister who has delighted in insinuating that anyone opposing his Brexit deal is a traitor; a reminder that words have consequences. Phillips is right that we should choose our words carefully, and right to imply the space for politics is becoming ever narrower. Her phrasing – ‘people like me’, ‘people like you’ – suggests the danger lies in the intense personalisation of politics.
That is true. But it should not prohibit the belief that, for instance, the Tory Party is a danger to the country – not because of its people, but because of its politics. I believed that when I voted in 2010, 2015 and 2017; many who have endured the sharp end of austerity feel similarly. The most effective way of acting against that politics is at the ballot box, affirming a democratic process often taken for granted, but which seems worryingly fragile today. It is hard to accede to media nostalgia for the less turbulent times before the referendum, even while deploring the vicious and paranoid state of our politics. Less turbulent for whom?
Both scandal and exodus could lead us to reconsider what our politics might look like on the far side of Brexit, if we come through it: whether our atrophied sense of the purpose of public life can be revived; what we want from our politicians; our own delight at grubbing out hypocrisy and moral flaw, and the way they too often substitute for politics. It all seems a long way off.