‘Corfu Uncovered’: the fall of the political class
The Osborne/Mandelson scandal suggests the obsession with sleaze, more than sleaziness itself, is killing politics.
Unfortunately, we now know only too well what a couple of British politicians did last summer. Together, they ‘dripped poison’; they cavorted in a Corfu taverna; and, most scandalously of all, they flirted with a Russian aluminium magnate with a dodgy past. Since then, it’s been a case of no kiss, and far too much tell.
This depressing tale began on 5 October when an unnamed but ‘senior Conservative’ kindly informed The Sunday Times that in late August, the new UK business secretary Peter Mandelson had ‘poured out pure poison’ regarding UK prime minister Gordon Brown, the man who, unbeknownst to Mandelson at the time, was about to ask him to rejoin the government. Given a whiff of gossip and schoolyard intrigue, the press, as the garrulous ‘senior Conservative’ intended, pursued the story.
It soon become clear that the bitching session happened when Mandelson, then EU trade commissioner, was holidaying in north-east Corfu, enjoying not just the generous company of millionaire financier Nathaniel Rothschild, but also of Rothschild’s prep-school chum and university sidekick, the aforementioned ‘senior Conservative’ and shadow chancellor, George Osborne. This would have been even cosier had Rothschild’s villa not proven too small for both Osborne and the baggage of Mandelson. Fortuitously, for someone of Mandelson’s opportunism, he was sent to stay on board the yacht of Rothschild’s business associate and friend, the billionaire aluminium magnate, Oleg Deripaska, someone, it has since emerged, whom Mandelson has known for four years.
Less fortuitously, the media’s newfound awareness of the proximity of dubiously gotten wealth to Mandelson’s eye for self-aggrandisement was too much to resist. ‘What does Mandelson see in billionaire Deripaska?’ some commentators mused. ‘What does Deripaska want from influential politician Mandelson?’ others pondered. And as the innuendos stacked up, so details about Deripaska emerged, from the refusal of America to grant him a visa, to his rumoured connection to a Russian protection racket. As for Mandelson, having had to resign from the cabinet twice before, it seemed he was being teed up for his hat-trick.
Mission accomplished for ‘senior conservative’ George Osborne.
That was until last week when The Times published a letter from Nathaniel Rothschild. He wrote: ‘Not once in the acres of coverage did [The Times] mention that George Osborne, who also accepted my hospitality, found the opportunity of meeting with Mr Deripaska so good that he invited the Conservative’s fundraiser Andrew Feldman who was staying nearby, to accompany him to Mr Deripaska’s boat to solicit a donation.’ Since this would contravene funding rules concerning the receipt of money from foreign persons, Feldman was on hand to suggest how it might be done via one of Deripaska’s British companies. Hence, concluded Rothschild, The Times’ ‘obsession with Mr Mandelson is trivial in light of Mr Osborne’s actions’.
What Osborne had initially seen as an opportunity to seed a story combining Mandelson’s dislike for Brown with a hint of financial impropriety came right back to him, covered, not in Mandelson’s, but his own sleaze. ‘If you sleep with dogs’, observed old Tory Norman Tebbit, ‘you’ll get fleas.’
As the daily episodes of ‘Corfu Uncovered’ have been aired, it has provided a dispiriting snapshot of the political class. From the image of rival politicians holidaying together in their attempts to pull a billionaire, to the subsequent stage-managed press coverage, they have never seemed more insular or their concerns so removed from the rest of society. Indeed, much of the criticism levelled at Osborne by fellow politicians has centred less around his dalliance with Deripaska than his decision to expose their world, unwittingly, to public scrutiny. In the words of a fellow Tory, ‘George broke the fundamental rule: what goes on tour, stays on tour’. The allegiance here is not to a particular party, however; it’s to the political club as a whole. ‘In the future, George, keep it behind closed doors’ – that seems to be the message.
But the more important narrative playing itself out here began long before Osborne lost his innocence in Corfu. It belongs rather to the political class’s self-destructive obsession with sleaze, an obsession that far from eradicating corruption proceeds to find it everywhere.
Back in the mid-1990s, New Labour made much play out of Tory scandals, be it Jonathan Aitken’s perjury trial or the Neil Hamilton ‘cash for questions’ mess. Next to an unpopular, rotten-to-the-core Conservative government, New Labour could pose as the good guys, the guys you could trust. Indeed, their manifesto pledge was to ‘clean up politics’ and ‘reform party funding to end sleaze’. And in its own cynical way, it made sense. In lieu of an actual political vision, the importance of individual character, of politicians’ behaviour, made a virtue of the means – that is, the mere act of governing.
The Corfu fiasco not only draws upon and exploits the anti-sleaze impulse, it also touches directly upon the anti-sleaze legislation pushed though during Blair’s first term: the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000. Establishing rules for party funding, including the prohibition of donations from foreigners, this legislation sought to present political parties as free of vested interests, be they those of Russian oligarchs or Formula One motor racing boss, Bernie Ecclestone.
The desperate paradox to the anti-sleaze fixation upon funding, as Osborne’s simultaneous play for Deripaska and move against Mandelson shows, is that political parties have never been more desperate for cash. At the height of their popularity in the postwar years, they could rely to a large degree on their memberships, with the Tories having 2.8million members, and Labour two million. No more, however. Both have since dwindled to between 250,000 and 200,000. However, by framing ‘funding’ and ‘donations’ in terms of sleaze, both parties frustrate their own quest for funds.
To put it more strongly, by seeing funding as a possible source of corruption, the act of political support itself becomes problematised. As Guardian commentator Martin Kettle writes, ‘having a rich friend is not a betrayal of the cause’. Here, Kettle inadvertently touches upon the problem. If there’s no perceptible cause to support, let alone betray, then it’s difficult to grasp why anyone would want to give parties money except for direct personal advantage, be it a business contract, or a title.
Some are quietly suggesting the answer to such cynicism is to remove the need for fundraising altogether, to make parties state-funded organisations. This, the complete transformation of politics into a mere profession, would cement its separation from social life. It would remove the burden from the narrow shoulders of politicians of ever again having to come up with something worth supporting.
What the farce in Corfu has captured in miniature is that the cross-party obsession with sleaze will only lead to every politician looking equally sullied. Far from reinvigorating faith in political life, the quest for sleaze only ever ratchets up the public’s cynicism levels.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked. He is speaking in the session No laughing matter! Has political comedy lost its edge? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume argued that scandal dominates debate while governments achieve nothing, and despaired that the donations scandal was news at all. Matthias Heitmann suggested the Paul Wolfowitz affair reveals how fear of corruption undermines political life. James Heartfield that we should get rid of codes of conduct not sack ministers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.