Candid Camera for the Westminster clique
No normal people care about the Byers-Hewitt-Hoon scandal, proving that sleaze-hunting is now an utterly elite pursuit.
No-mark ex-ministers and MPs no one has ever heard of pretend to be important in order to get a bit of cash. This, if the media and political class’s reaction to Sunday’s revelations is any indication, is BIG news. Not as big as Watergate. Perhaps a bit smaller than the MPs’ expenses scandal. But nonetheless big news, perhaps on a par with those revelations several years ago that former deputy prime minister John Prescott had two Jaguar cars. Outside of the Westminster cocoon, however, such revelations are unlikely to trouble anyone’s sleep – in some cases, they may even aid it.
Soporific probably isn’t what the investigative team from Channel 4’s Dispatches programme and The Sunday Times aimed for when they set about creating what looks like little more than Candid Camera for the Parliament Channel. No, they were hoping to show just how wretched and corrupt our political class is – which might indeed be revelatory if you missed cash for questions, cash for honours, cash for peers, cash for amendments, the MPs’ expenses scandal, the endless funding allegations and many, many more seemingly dodgy dealings. In fact, given the litany of scandal over the past 15 years, a headline running ‘Exposed: MP with principles’ would be far more shocking.
Clearly unperturbed by the deadening ubiquity of parliamentary scandal, the corruption-hunting journalists set up a fictitious US-based communications company called Anderson Perry, and, more vital still, secreted a camera in some pot pourri. They then invited a selection of cross-party MPs, including several Labour ex-ministers, to discuss how Anderson Perry might best lobby current ministers and civil servants – in return for any assistance, the MPs would receive a fee. Given that those interviewed by ‘Anderson Perry’, a mixture of has-beens and never-will-bes, were all standing down as MPs at the upcoming General Election, the prospect of some cash for contacts probably seemed pretty attractive. Which is probably what the journalists had wagered on.
Still, the journalists probably hadn’t quite reckoned on the bragging buffoon that turned up in the form of ex-transport secretary Stephen Byers. He boasted about his friendship with ‘Tony’ – or ex-prime minister Tony Blair as the rest of us know him. He boasted about how he supposedly engineered a deal with the current transport secretary Lord Adonis on behalf of National Express (securing them a stern rebuke rather than a multimillion-pound penalty for dropping the loss-making East Coast franchise). And he boasted about how he won an alteration to the food-labelling system from business secretary Lord Mandelson at the alleged behest of Tesco. But most of all, he just boasted. ‘I am the man who can put you in touch with important people like Tony or Peter or that Adonis chap’, he was effectively saying. ‘I’m like a cab for hire – at £5,000 a day’, he literally said.
Byers wasn’t alone, he was only the most quotable. Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon offered to lead delegations to ministers, stating that he wanted to make use of his knowledge and contacts in a way that, ‘frankly, makes money’. Former health secretary Patricia Hewitt was at it too, suggesting ways for companies to get in contact with ministers. That was about the substance of it really. They have all since denied doing anything wrong, with Byers going so far as to claim that he was really just making stuff up to show off. Good Labour comrade that he is, education minister Kevin Brennan backed Byers up, confirming that, yes, Byers was indeed a delusional irrelevance: ‘The idea that Stephen Byers would be able to change government policy by being paid the sort of money he was asking for is frankly ludicrous.’
Unfortunately for Byers, Hoon and Hewitt, while they may not have broken any current parliamentary rules or ministerial code, their folly has annoyed and/or delighted colleagues. So no sooner had last night’s Dispatches programme finished than the Parliamentary Labour Party suspended them on the grounds of bringing the party into disrepute. Rumours have since been circulating that many in the Labour Party still even partially loyal to prime minister Gordon Brown are far from disappointed to see the back of Hoon and Hewitt, the impotent duo who tried to depose Brown earlier this year, and the bumptious Byers, a man Prescott repeatedly referred to as that ‘Blairite outrider’.
But, beyond the extent to which this grubby episode fuels the gossip and intrigue of the courtly cliques at the Palace of Westminster, the big problem with revelations such as these is that they don’t really reveal very much. Yes, lobbying, which in itself is only the act of trying to argue your case with policymakers, can have murky depths (although not that murky – as chancellor Alistair Darling pointed out, ‘there’s no need to hire lobbyists if you have something to say; just make an appointment and say it’). And yes, the political class, particularly the demob-happy brigade about to exit it at the next election, is so lacking in political principles and ideals that its individual members find it difficult to believe in anything beyond their own self-interest. But does a journalistic sting casting further aspersions on MPs’ behaviour really help matters? If anything, the exposé of Byers, Hoon and Hewitt and others too irrelevant to mention as puffed-up desperadoes merely makes things worse, entrenching an already existing cynicism towards all things political.
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However, what is revealed by this tawdry affair and more importantly the tedium it provokes, is the debilitating effect the obsession with sleaze has had on British political life. As we have noted on spiked before (see Sleaze: time for some adult debate, by Mick Hume), following Tory MP Neil Hamilton’s cash for questions mess and minister Jonathan Aitken’s conviction for perjury, sleaze became the defining political issue during the dying days of John Major’s Tory government in the mid-1990s. So eagerly did Blair’s New Labour seize upon sleaze as an election-winning issue that it became a key part of their 1997 manifesto in which they pledged to ‘clean up politics’ and ‘reform party funding to end sleaze’.
In doing so, however, they narrowed the focus of political debate. What was important in New Labour’s post-political era was less the ideas of a political party than the behaviour of its members. Given the difficulty of maintaining a life untainted, the whiter-than-white, anti-sleaze posture became a rod for the New Labour government’s own back. Whether it was Bernie Ecclestone’s donations to New Labour in the late 1990s or former home secretary David Blunkett’s undeclared directorship of a bioscience company in 2005, New Labour has frequently been brought low by the very behaviour it so cynically sought to politicise during its years of ascent.
And this is the other side to the infernal anti-sleaze crusade in contemporary British politics. With every scandal and every subsequent attempt to clean up politics, from the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life at the time of the first cash-for-questions scandal in 1994 to the self-flagellating rounds of inquiry and report into the expenses fiasco, the focus on combating sleaze has led the media to go looking for it. And in a way, it’s difficult to blame journalists here: when appearing to be utterly without stain is the centre of political life, little wonder journalists go hunting for dirt. That, after all, is politics right now. But just weeks away from a General Election, the continuing degradation of political and public life is still dispiriting stuff.
As this latest scandal breaks noiselessly over the public, the real consequence of political and media elites’ sleaze obsession becomes clear. Reduced to who’s done what with whom, parliamentary politics appears to those beyond SW1 as little more than office politics. And as everyone knows, office politics is rarely of interest if you’re not working there.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.