Conor Gearty

In September 1992, David Mellor resigned from the government after concern over an extra-marital affair and a free holiday in Europe. An affair also accounted for Mr Tim Yeo in early 1994. Soon after this resignation, Lord Caithness resigned following the suicide of his wife, which apparently was the result of an affair he had been conducting. In 1993, Michael Mates left the government after disclosures that he had sent gifts and messages of support to the businessman Asil Nadir. Norman Lamont caused an uproar over his use of public money to evict a tenant from his property. Other lesser Tories, such as Mrs Thatcher’s successor in Finchley, Hartley Booth, have left office under a moral cloud. Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith are part of a long Tory tradition. If we throw our minds back to the Thatcher age, various forms of sleaze are associated with the names of Cecil Parkinson, Nicholas Fairbairn and Patrick Nicholls. Leaving aside the proper ‘constitutional’ resignations of Lord Carrington, Leon Brittan and Michael Heseltine, and the not so proper ministerial non-resignations that cannot be mentioned for fear of the libel laws, we can still see that the rotten-apple theory of ministerial misdemeanours breaks down, since the whole barrel is infected by sleaze.

Next week, Parliament will once again be ‘opened’ by Her Majesty the Queen, having been ‘closed’ just long enough to allow MPs their mid-term break. Black Rod will be human for the day and there will be much toing and froing, loud door-banging and the like. A ‘silver stick’ will attend Her Majesty, ready to repel Catholics, as she journeys to one of Her Many Thrones, this one in the House of Lords, from where she will declaim for a while, like an expensive ventriloquist’s dummy in cheap glasses. The audience will include all the MPs, whose function it is on these occasions to walk from the Commons to the Lords in tandem with their political opponents in a display of false camaraderie, the Tories in particular looking with each passing year increasingly like a gaggle of white-collar criminals on day release for a family wedding.

Quite how this whole event is a triumph for British democracy is hazy to me. Perhaps the only people who know for sure are the tourists listening to descriptions of the event on their language-friendly walkmans in the ‘Palace’ of Westminster, or the drenched sightseers, peering into their guidebooks on one of the many open-top buses that the free market decrees must now congest the capital. To my constitutional law students, Parliament is where the fast buck is made, where the tricks of an unseemly trade are chanced, repeated and then passed on to new arrivals.

Recent events may yet prove the truth of this cynical interpretation of our body politic. But already – together with the party conferences that preceded them – they reveal a state desperate for change yet incapable of achieving it, a political culture in which form and style matter more than content, and a Parliament capable only of one unsynthetic passion: that relating to its own dignity, a cause long recognised as lost by all except those whose self-esteem is ballooned by belief in it. In this regard, as in most matters, the Liberal Democratic reaction is the most comic, and the most revealing. Two of the Party’s senior spokesmen offered totally contradictory judgments on the conduct of the editor of the Guardian, each speaking with all the gravitas and pomp of a man on the verge of power. It is this affectation of national leadership that makes Lib Dem frontbench MPs seem so unconnected to reality, even to their own grassroots, who cheerfully bested them at Party Conference in excellent debates on drugs and the monarchy.

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