Andrew Mitchell, the government enforcer, allegedly calls a policeman a “*u**i** pleb”. George Osborne, the finance minister, boards a train with a second class ticket and proceeds to sit in first class. MPs, of all parties, are found to be scamming the taxpayer by owning one house and living in another – no, I don’t understand how the scam works either.
So, why are we getting so many scandals now? Is it because this is a particularly bad time for it? I don’t think so. My guess is that the amount of obnoxious behaviour by politicians is more or less constant over time. The variable is the press.
Older readers, and those with a fascination for history, will remember the spectacular collapse of the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. Originally elected in 1979, for over 10 years there was an almost complete absence of sleaze stories. About the only one I can think off the top of my head was Dennis Thatcher’s use of No.10-headed notepaper. And then, all of a sudden, in about 1992 they all started coming out: cash for questions, three in a bed, secret love children, more cash for questions, affairs with actresses. Every day a new scandal.
As I said, it seems improbable that Tory MPs were for 10 years purer than the driven snow and then, all of a sudden, dropped all principle like it was a form of radioactive waste. No, what happened was they had always been acting like this; it was just that now the press started reporting it. And why now (or, is it then?)? Because of Black Wednesday. Black Wednesday – Britain’s forced departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992 – had demonstrated in the clearest possible terms that the government didn’t know what it was doing when it came to the economy. At that moment the press got angry. So long as they believed that these people knew how to ensure prosperity they were prepared to turn a blind eye to the odd peccadillo. But now they realised that they had been hood-winked. After that any Conservative was fair game.
Now, Cameron’s government has not had an ERM moment as such. But then again, it has never demonstrated any great degree of competence. Faced with the greatest economic calamity in living memory (or the Second Great Depression as Brian likes to call it) it has drifted and the press has started to notice. The feeling of hoodwinkedness and corresponding anger is now fully fledged. I unconfidently predict a stream of scandals until Cameron leaves office.