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Britain’s golden age of sleaze Nothing in the Nineties matched today's decadence

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson tastes samples from British food and drink companies during an event in Downing Street on November 30, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson tastes samples from British food and drink companies during an event in Downing Street on November 30, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)


June 1, 2024   8 mins

For many years now, the gold standard for government sleaze has been John Major’s ill-fated administration between 1992 and 97, but maybe that’s no longer the case. Maybe we’ve just been living through the true golden age. After all, the outgoing Parliament brought us Tractorgate, Wallpapergate, Partygate, and many, many more. It also saw a sex scandal precipitate the fall of Boris Johnson, a proud first for a British prime minister. Nothing in the Nineties could match that. 

There’s much in common between the two periods: a longstanding Conservative government disintegrating after a protracted fight over Europe, lacking ideas, direction and the will to govern, and facing a media-polished Labour opposition that’s fixated on winning. And then there’s the abiding impression of sleaze and snouts-in-troughs.

Major’s problems were generally dated to his conference speech in the autumn of 1993, when he urged the nation to celebrate “the old values: neighbourliness, decency, courtesy”. It was, he said, “time to get back to basics”. His director of communications briefed that the Prime Minister “was intent on rolling back the permissive society”. Elsewhere, cabinet ministers were denouncing absent fathers, single mothers and children born out of wedlock.

The newspapers saw all this as a challenge to seek out hypocrisy, and — under the mocking banner of “Back to Basics” — began publishing stories of Conservative MPs who might be failing in their moral duties, particularly in terms of sexual fidelity. There was no shortage of sinners, even if most were deeply obscure names: Robert Hughes, Rod Richards, Gary Waller, Tim Yeo. 

There was nothing illegal going on here. But then illegality wasn’t the measure of newsworthiness when it came to sexual misbehaviour. Far more important was the pleasure that people take in seeing the high and mighty brought low by human failings. So what mattered was whether it made politicians look foolish. Richard Spring’s “three-in-a-bed romp” did. So too did Hartley Booth writing love poems to a woman less than half his age (and him a Methodist lay preacher, as well). And David Ashby’s libel action against The Sunday Times, in which he testified that he was impotent, and said his wife used to assault him and call him a “poofter”. 

The story that really stuck was that of heritage secretary David Mellor having an affair with an actress, and wearing a Chelsea strip during sex. That latter detail was — as no one then said — fake news, invented by the (yet to be disgraced) publicist Max Clifford, but it elevated the story to tabloid greatness. And it was readily believed, if only because it deflected one’s attention from the image of the “minister for fun” having sex.

The sorry string of sex scandals left the headline-writers a little blasĂ©. “Another Back to Basics Bombshell,” shrugged The Sunday Mirror. “How Much Worse Can It Get?” wondered The Independent. The answer to that came with the death in 1994 of Stephen Milligan MP. His body was found dressed in women’s underwear, with a satsuma in his mouth and a bin liner over his head. He had died from strangulation with a length of flex, the apparent victim of a session of autoerotic asphyxiation that had gone wrong.

Beyond sex, there were also tales of financial impropriety by MPs. Again it helped if there was an element of ridicule involved — and a killer phrase, as when Mohamed Al-Fayed, the media-loving owner of Harrods, claimed that one could “rent an MP just like you rent a London taxi”. He also said he’d had a couple of MPs, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, on his payroll. Smith admitted it, but Hamilton and his wife, Christine, wouldn’t let it lie, and loudly protested his innocence.

All of this got mixed up with the observation that industries that had only recently been privatised under the Conservatives now seemed to be employing rather a lot of Conservative ex-ministers. It made for an explosive equation: Back to Basics plus Fat Cats equalled Tory Sleaze. An opinion poll in October 1994 found 61% agreeing with the statement that “the Tories these days give the impression of being very sleazy and disreputable”. As Robin Cook said, this looked like “an arrogant government that has been around too long to remember it is accountable to the people”. It’s as true today as it was then.

The attention given to the Mellor story bewildered some people. An affair with an actress, puzzled his French counterpart Jack Lang: “Why else does one become minister of culture?” It seemed a very British scandal. In other words, it didn’t actually scandalise anyone. People didn’t really care about the immorality. Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown discovered this when news of his adulterous affair was published under the headline “Paddy Pantsdown” (“dreadful, but brilliant,” he acknowledged), and he enjoyed an opinion-poll bounce. It was just gossip, adding to the gaiety of the nation. At a time when Cool Britannia was trying to replicate the Swinging Sixties, David Mellor was to John Profumo what Oasis were to the Beatles.

And that was largely the impact of Back to Basics. These stories embarrassed the MPs, and they embarrassed the prime minister — which made them even more entertaining because he seemed so incongruous a figure in the midst of such shenanigans. (Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was not revealed until 2002.) Others got hurt in the process, but there was little public sympathy. Even the death of Stephen Milligan was largely greeted with giggles. And it all added to the image of a decadent government in its dying days.

The era came to an end with the 1997 general election, when Neil Hamilton — very much the poster boy of Tory sleaze — lost his seat to the white-suited journalist Martin Bell, standing as an independent. Thereafter, things got dull. 

Tony Blair’s government had its own image problems, and the cash-for-honours investigation meant Blair himself became the first prime minister to be questioned by police. But none of it was much fun. And New Labour was lucky. The biggest scandal on its watch was MPs expenses, and all the most colourful examples came from the Conservatives: the servicing of the boiler for Michael Ancram’s swimming pool, the cleaning of Douglas Hogg’s moat, Sir Peter Viggers’s duck house. John Prescott did his best, with mock-Tudor beams and having a toilet seat mended not once but twice, but despite that, and despite six Labour MPs being found guilty on various charges of fraud and false accountancy — five were jailed — the most the Tories could hope for was a public attitude of a plague on both their duck houses.

So how did the most recent Conservative Parliament match up to its less-than-illustrious predecessor? Not very well really. It all got a bit too serious.

Financial and other misdemeanours continued. MPs still fall, with depressing ease, for the undercover journalist offering money. But somehow the political consequences weren’t as severe as before. Under New Labour, Peter Mandelson had come back from two resignations, which seemed outrageous, but now it was scarcely worth clearing your desk: Suella Braverman resigned as home secretary, and was back in the same job a week later, courtesy of the next prime minister off the rank. 

There have been happy moments, of course. There was William Wragg, honeytrapped via the dating app Grindr — and then giving the scammer the contact numbers of his colleagues. There was Neil Parish watching pornography on his phone in the Commons, and explaining that “it was tractors I was looking at”. There was Mark Menzies, the last of the Parliament to lose the whip, following allegations of him having been locked in a flat by “some bad people” and needing money. And then there was health secretary Matt Hancock. In 2021 footage from CCTV emerged of him adulterously embracing his aide in his office, and he was obliged to resign, “because I fell in love with somebody”.

But that wasn’t true. He actually had to go because he’d broken government rules on social distancing during the Covid pandemic. The same reason that Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings had to go, after he’d taken his family from London to Durham, and then had a test-drive to Barnard Castle “because my eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease”. And the same reason that Johnson’s poll ratings plummeted, when stories of Partygate refused to go away, and he was fined by the police for celebrating his birthday, the first prime minister found to have committed a criminal offence while in office.

Coinciding with Partygate was the Owen Paterson affair that badly damaged Johnson’s standing. The prime minister tried to stop the parliamentary suspension of Paterson, who had broken lobbying rules, representing a healthcare company that won two lucrative government contracts during the pandemic.

Even so, it was a sex scandal that finally did for Johnson, and perhaps that was appropriate for a prime minister whose sexual history would have impressed Lloyd George. The story went back to 2017, when the #MeToo moment cost the jobs of cabinet ministers Michael Fallon and Damian Green for inappropriate behaviour in the past. Also leaving office was assistant whip Chris Pincher, alleged to have behaved improperly towards a former Olympic rower, though he was cleared by the party and was back in government within weeks. 

In February 2022, Pincher’s career took him back to the whips’ office, and four months later he resigned again, this time after a drunken incident at the Carlton Club, where he was alleged to have groped a couple of men. Further allegations followed of unwanted sexual advances, and questions were asked about whether Johnson knew of the stories before making Pincher a whip. Initially the government denied any pre-knowledge, but then the prime minister had to admit that actually he had been informed. It was also suggested that he didn’t take any of it too seriously: “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature,” was said (by Dominic Cummings) to have been his comment.

Johnson’s duplicity came as a revelation to his colleagues. For years — decades, even — people had accused Johnson of playing fast and loose with facts, but it was not until Pinchergate that the scales fell from the eyes of chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid. So shocked were they that they resigned from cabinet on a matter of principle, followed by dozens of other ministers, who made up in numbers what they lacked in public recognition. Michael Gove also wanted to resign, but he made the mistake of telling the prime minister in advance, and was promptly sacked. That was a final gesture by Johnson, who then resigned himself.

“Johnson’s duplicity came as a revelation to his colleagues.”

Obviously, Johnson’s defenestration wasn’t about Pincher at all. It was about those poll ratings and Covid. The Conservatives feared they might lose the next election if they didn’t replace Johnson with a plausible leader. Someone like Liz Truss (who’d survived revelations about her affair more than a decade ago). And for some, it was also about revenge for Brexit; Europe had brought down the last four Tory prime ministers, and played a part this time as well.

The removal of a prime minister was much more dramatic than anything the Nineties had offered, though essentially it was the same issue of hypocrisy, the gap between politicians telling others how to behave and then not doing so themselves. 

On one level, it was still as trivial as it ever was, politicians and commentators arguing earnestly about birthday cake. But it was so much more serious now, played out against a backdrop of all those deaths in the pandemic. And bubbling under the surface was the dark suspicion that those who imposed the lockdown regime knew it was pointless, which was why they were happy to ignore it. 

Partygate provoked genuine anger, in a way that David Mellor and Neil Hamilton never did. The mood of the country is different these days; much more despairing than when the economy was growing in the mid-Nineties. There’s less appetite for amusement. In a sign of dour times, we’re just about to vote a former Director of Public Prosecutions into Downing Street. Keir Starmer is not going to come a cropper like Johnson did; despite the press’s best efforts, Beergate didn’t take off, because no one could really picture Starmer at a party in the first place. There will be sexual misbehaviour and MPs on the take — there always are — but they tend not to hurt Labour so much.

On the other hand, we’re living in a time of proper scandals: institutional abuse and corruption, with cover-ups so common as to seem like this is simply how things are done. There’s public hostility to an establishment that seems more concerned with protecting itself than serving the people, and Sir Keir can look very establishment indeed. But that’s a while off yet, because incoming parties get a bit of leeway; not even the Bernie Ecclestone affair damaged Tony Blair in his first year as prime minister. Meanwhile we’re left with the bitter aftertaste of the outgoing Parliament.

The image of a decadent government — Robin Cook’s “arrogant government” — was there all right under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, but it had a harder, nastier edge. I don’t think it’s merely nostalgia that makes me think the Nineties will remain the Golden Age of Sleaze. The negative publicity then led to the creation of the Ministerial Code and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, overseen by the Standards and Privileges Committee, all in pursuit of better behaviour. It would be hard to argue that this goal has been achieved.


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

“New Labour was lucky. The biggest scandal on its watch was MPs expenses.” Yet that is not true. It doesn’t help the narrative the author wanted, but the two biggest scandals in the last fifty years occurred during New Labour’s reign.

The first was the “dodgy dossier”. A Labour Party spin doctor *led* a team of supposedly impartial civil servants to create what was falsely claimed to be an intelligence report. It was actually a plagiarisation of a US grad student essay. The dossier’s claims of weapons of mass destruction were the pretext for war in Iraq. Tony Blair (and Colin Powell in the USA), knowing the dossier’s real origins, claimed it was a justification for war. This was a fabricated justification. Iraq was invaded. Millions died. No weapons of mass destruction existed. The Middle East was severely destabilised. American and Western hegemony weakened. All on the back of a dodgy dossier produced by one of New Labour’s architects.

The second was the purge of awkward Labour Party MPs to make way for Tony Blair’s former flatmates and other hangers on. Tony Blair used the peerage system on a never before seen industrial scale to bribe his awkward MPs to give up their safe seats for his friends, and reward other New Labour backers with permanent sinecures. It left the political make up of the upper chamber of our democracy completely distorted and bloated. Blair created 374 Lords, more than any other PM before or since. This gave Labour a huge and permanent majority which could then only be rectified by all future non-Labour governments also committing the same gerrymandering. Thus forever has the constitutional function of our upper chamber been broken by Blair and all because he abused the honours system to reward his backers and chums.

I campaigned for New Labour and for Tony Blair. I misplaced a lot of youthful hope in their election. I think many did, especially in the media. And I think this is why the media class find it so difficult to accurately report on and dissect what actually happened and even blank out the major scandals.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Top comment, Nell, once again.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Absolutely.
There is also Mandelson’s mortgage application that is worth a mention. It is not only the press that turn a blind eye to Labour’s wrongdoings.
How Rayner is not now on bail amazes me.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

However there were weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqis used them. The only question is where did they go. I’m not legitimizing the Iraqi war. It’s sad that our governments can’t get this sort of thing right. Which tells me they really aren’t up to getting anything right. So the better solution is smaller government with no power.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

It’s a bit off the topic of scandals, but I assume you’re not questioning the fabrication of the dossier? The UK parliament’s investigation confirmed this.

On your point of weapons of mass destruction, there absolutely weren’t any. Saddam had destroyed them and all our weapons experts knew this as too did our intelligence services. No authority on the subject in either the US or the UK left any doubt about there being none. This is not a point of debate. The 2004 “Senate Report of Pre-war Intelligence on Iraq” confirms that prior to the war all intelligence pointed to there being none. And to repeat, there were none.

Bush, Blair and Powell touted a grad student essay plagiarised by a UK Labour Party spin doctor and 6 middling civil servants as evidence of weapons of mass destruction because they had nothing else.
.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“Saddam had destroyed them” maybe, can’t really tell now. The concoction of evidence is enough to tell you all you need to know about too big of government.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
1 month ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

That “best solution” is the same as no government. Okay, I get it …. if we have to have a meaningless democratic government, let’s at least make it with far fewer MP’s, local councils and civil servants, with less money to invest (ie waste), thereby reduce taxation, which will avoid throwing taxpayer’s money down the drain on yet another whacky public service, the absence of which will motivate private enterprise. Nationalized enterprise is a contradiction in terms.

George Venning
George Venning
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

It’s not polite to mention Iraq Nell.
If you start questioning the basis of one war, there is a risk that you might start looking at some of the others.

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The only time I ever voted Labour was in 1997 entirely due to the sleaze of the Tories. I was so disenchanted with the Iraq disaster the I have never voted for them since and nor will I.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“I misplaced a lot of youthful hope in their (New Labour and Tony Blair’s) election.” I think that was the difference between the 90s and now – hope. No one can drum up any enthusiasm for Starmer.

Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
1 month ago

The ‘most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history’ surely deserves a mention. The Post Office scandal, actually yet another judicial scandal, involved numerous judges and lawyers convicting egregiously hundreds of sub-postmasters for crimes that weren’t ever committed – for over a generation. In this Kafkaesque scandal, a bevy of senior politicians and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, for God’s sake, got walk on roles too.

Aden Wellsmith
Aden Wellsmith
1 month ago

Yep, the pantheon of the “good” and “great” are up to their necks in the mess.
The inquiry of course, won’t go anywhere near the judges.

Aden Wellsmith
Aden Wellsmith
1 month ago

I’ve a list of 470 MPS and other politicians who have committed offences, stolen money etc.

From public sex with a Coldstream Guardsman in St James’s park, to domestic violence [Female MP for starters] to expenses fiddles, to paedophilia what was covered up

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
1 month ago

Oh so true! Some gay Tory was plied with drink and touched a young man in the Carlton club . And Boris ate cake during lockdown when at work . Caligula had nothing on these people .

Neil Ross
Neil Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Surely you wouldn’t be suggesting that the accusations against Johnson might have been slightly exaggerated for political purposes. Disgraceful!

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
1 month ago

“There will be sexual misbehaviour and MPs on the take — there always are — but they tend not to hurt Labour so much.”
Largely the work of the Labour-loving media, which will grudgingly report on liberal missteps – maybe – but even then at much lower levels of aggressiveness, vitriol, sarcasm, and sheer volume than if a conservative, no matter how obscure, is in the kill zone.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Very true. Apparently the ignoring of the rapes of hundreds of young girls by grooming gangs for electoral purposes is less significant that a few tipsy toffs having it off.

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
1 month ago

Can Keith Vaz and the Lithuanian washing machine engineers not get a mention? Of course he was untouchable for decades for unknown reasons.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Dudgeon

Mention Keith Vaz and you open a can of Leicester child abusing worms. That’s why he doesn’t get a mention.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
1 month ago

{D]espite the press’s best efforts, Beergate didn’t take off, because no one could really picture Starmer at a party in the first place.

Excellent point (it implies far more than it states) and beautifully phrased.

Al Hicks
Al Hicks
1 month ago

Mandleson?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

Starmer’s supposedly already planning to move impediments like Diane Abbott to the Lords.

Neil Ross
Neil Ross
1 month ago

Failing to mention Ron Davies should be an automatic disqualification from using the tag “historian”!!

stefan filipkiewicz
stefan filipkiewicz
1 month ago

Then there is the current government’s covid VIP fast lane;
100,000,000’s (even billions) wasted on unusable,overpriced gear in contracts with Tory party supporters who had no track record in that area. And initially denied that there were any such contracts.
And Lady Mone