The saga of the PM's wife and flats, quacks and conmen is a case of sleaze-becomes-farce.
As Cheriegate reaches fever pitch, you could be forgiven for thinking that something actually happened here. But this bizarre saga of the PM’s wife and flats, quacks and conmen indicates how the emptiness of politics allows nothing to make the news.
Downing Street stands accused of lies, sleaze and meddling in the justice system. From what it is possible to untangle from the news reports, both the accusations and their rebuttals stand on technicalities.
The prime minister’s wife Cherie Blair is accused of using convicted fraudster Peter Foster as her financial adviser in the purchase of two flats in Bristol; this was denied by Cherie (‘He was not my financial adviser’) (1), and the prime minister’s office (‘It is not true that Mr Foster was or is financial adviser to the family’) (2); the Daily Mail proves that Foster did, indeed, give Cherie some financial advice. Does this really qualify as something that should bring down a government?
On sleaze, there is the issue of the blind trust: a Blairite initiative to guard against, guess what, sleaze. The money from the sale of the Blairs’ former Islington home was put into such a trust, the idea being that trustees would manage the money without involvement from the family. The debate about whether using this money to buy flats was improper, or appears improper, rages on – as though there was something deeply scandalous about using your own money to buy somewhere for your university-going son to live.
In the latest episode, it emerges that Cherie put in a phone call to the solicitors representing Peter Foster in a deportation case. Foster – if you’re lucky enough not to be reading the UK newspapers at the moment – is being turfed out of Britain because of his criminal history, and is awaiting deportation to Australia. He is also the boyfriend of Cherie Blair’s friend and ‘lifestyle guru’ Carole Caplin, which is how he got involved in the flat-buying in the first place. Cherie has denied interfering with the case. Who knows? Does anyone really care?
What with all the other rumours and speculation, this is rapidly turning into a case of sleaze-becomes-farce. What seems to have started as a straightforward, private transaction by the prime minister’s wife, conducted through a personal friend with a strange spiritual bent and a serial conman for a boyfriend, has escalated into a scandal that – at least so far as some sections of the UK media are concerned – threatens to engulf the whole Blair administration. And New Labour’s overreaction has only served to fuel the whole thing.
As the ‘scandal’ deepens, politicians blame the media for getting the story way out of proportion, and the media blame the politics of spin for creating a situation in which it looks like the government lied. But while it is true that this story hinges on the relationship between politics and the media, it cuts much deeper than the Mail v Cherie. The elevation of this petty issue is a symptom of two deeper trends in political life today: the way the media has become everything in politics, and the fact that today’s political elite doesn’t know how to behave.
The politics of spin does not just involve having a busy press office. The relationship between today’s political elite and the rest of society is conducted through the media, and New Labour characterises this. Without the support of a grassroots party membership, and operating in a climate where public engagement with politics is at an all-time low, the political elite finds itself isolated and insecure. Only through the media can today’s politicians hope to reach beyond the walls of parliament, and elicit some interest in, and engagement with, the way they are running society.
This explains New Labour’s obsessive media focus, and its constant attempts to spin the press a line. It also helps to explain why the media often seems only too keen to publish the message that the government wants. The absence of political contest means that there is little else but the government line – and if that same government wants to encourage the media towards playing an instrumental role in the running of political life, who are the media to refuse? Just as politicians are insecure about the impact that politics has, so today’s media organisations harbour doubts about the importance of ‘just’ reporting the news, and quickly step into the role of political operators.
But as Cheriegate indicates, this isn’t, as right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens put it, a world in which the government dominates all media coverage, turning The Times of London into ‘a sort of British Pravda‘ and the Sun and the News of the World into ‘meek handmaidens of power’ (3). Because while the political elite can seek to control the press as much as it likes, its internal confusion makes doing this impossible.
Freed from the pressures and conventions of the past, there is nothing to hold the elite together in the face of unexpected twists and turns of politics today. Lacking in self-belief, and unsure what rules, if any, should apply to public behaviour, anything can become a source of scandal. Given that it was New Labour that made personal propriety and the orthodoxy of anti-sleaze a defining political principle, it has only itself to blame when it becomes the butt of sleaze allegations itself. But even so, it comes to something when not even the prime minister’s wife can work out how to behave, and not even the prime minister’s office can keep a lid on things when her oddities go public.
Sunday Times columnist Minette Marrin notes that the substance of Cherie’s ‘“misunderstanding”’ with the media was ‘apparently trivial’. ‘What’s really wrong with her’, Marrin says, ‘is that she seems to have very little idea of how to behave or of who she is’ (4). It’s strange enough that the wife of the UK prime minister can so blithely endorse all kind of wacky New Age beliefs, that she so publicly enjoys a close friendship with the likes of her ‘lifestyle guru’, that she so trustingly gets into complicated property transactions with a guy who she professes not to have known well, in the form of chatty, semi-literate emails that say things like ‘You are a star’ (5).
Stranger still that Cherie’s defence of her relationship with conman Foster was that she did not know his history, and that had she done so, she would have been ‘far more circumspect’ (6). Having this naivety, and then admitting to it, indicates a very modern incomprehension about what it means to be a public figure. Maybe this is, as Cherie’s sympathisers have argued, just what she’s like. But any member of an elite under pressure to behave like an elite would know that a prime minister’s wife can never go round simply being herself. Particularly when the wife in question is a QC and what seems like an error of judgement is made by a judge.
And then there’s Number 10’s reaction. Whether the statement it issued to the press regarding Cherie’s relationship with Foster was an actual lie, and who was responsible for this, is as unclear as it is unimportant. What matters is that Downing Street saw fit to overreact so quickly, and so defensively – or even that it saw fit to react at all to an issue that it (rightly) considers to be about Cherie Blair’s private affairs, and nothing to do with Downing Street.
An administration operating on this level of insecurity is guaranteed to blow every little thing out of proportion, with corrosive effects. After all, if there was no lie but if everyone thinks there was a lie, who cares what actually happened? The BBC website can still run a talking point on ‘Do you trust No. 10 to tell the truth?’, and many will say ‘No’.
This kind of circus makes the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal look like an issue of major constitutional importance. Let’s just hope Mrs Blair has nothing else in her diary.
(1) Cherie Blair statement in full, BBC News, 5 December 2002
(2) Tale of Cherie and conman ‘just another smear on Blairs’, Guardian, 2 December 2002
(3) Mail on Sunday, 8 December 2002
(4) Sunday Times, 8 December 2002
(5) Cherie property row at-a-glance, BBC News, 10 December 2002
(6) Cherie Blair statement in full, BBC News, 5 December 2002
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