Most political bag-carriers are somewhat loath to wish that one of our elected masters would provide us with a properly juicy scandal just in case, as per the Law of Ironic Retribution, our own boss breaks cover and provides an eager media with the goods. Nonetheless, I couldn’t have been the only one a little disappointed by the latest instalment of the row surrounding the Huhnes’ speeding ticket, and not just because I lost in the sweepstake as a result.
I mean, it’s not exactly Profumo, is it?
Francis Urquhart, the fictional chief whip everyone hates to love, once mused upon the means by which he should frame and destroy the prime minister who had made the mistake of double-crossing him. Congratulating himself on a good start in undermining his boss’ reputation in the House, Urquhart decided to give the public a scandal on something they really understood: sex or money. These ingredients, either separately or together, are guarantors that the perpetrator is well on the way to achieving the adjectives “disgraced former” appearing in any introductions that are made for him after he is found out.
The expenses scandal struck such a chord because it was an easy concept: taxpayers’ money being used – as many of the punters had always suspected – on wine, women and song. A clear cut case of what was clearly right and what was obviously wrong meant that MPs bleating plaintively in their defence that claiming for hookers and whiskey was “within the rules” cut absolutely no ice. As the old adage nearly goes, “Never be caught with a dead girl, a live boy, or a questionable claim for a holiday chalet in Val-d'Isère.”
But how much does financial scandal actually matter? The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 2009, which focused on political participation and citizenship, found that half the public do not want to be involved in decision making in their local area and over half (55%) do not want to be involved at a national level. Nearly half (40 percent) cite “lack of time” for not getting involved, and none of the other reasons receive a mention from more 12% of respondents. The research for the report was conducted before the expenses scandal.
The Audit undertaken in the following year found that while trust in politicians dropped in May 2009 during the scandal, satisfaction with politicians and the political process had more or less returned to normal by November 2009. The Hansard Society said, “There has not been a fundamental realignment of views about MPs and the political process as a result of the expenses scandal. For the most part, it has merely confirmed and hardened the public’s widely held scepticism about politicians rather than changed their views.”
As for sex? Even in this more sexually-liberated age, the whisper of a homosexual element to a scandal often means that the busted party will be treated more severely as a response. Not sacked, necessarily, but tarnished. Romancing members of the opposite sex not in the category of duly designated spouse is still frowned upon and liable to raise titters in the press gallery and in the papers, but tend not to be career-ending these days.
So political scandal, while often career-damaging for the individuals implicated, does not seem to have an impact on how politics as a whole is perceived by the public.
Cold comfort, however, for those staring down the wrong end of the barrel in the Daily Telegraph editorial.