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  • Scott Cresswell

Labour Must Be Careful: Their Anti-Sleaze Rhetoric Could Backfire


Prime Minister Boris Johnson pictured here in November 2021 at COP26. His Government is under pressure for sleaze allegations within the Tory party.

Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze. It’s the word that’s summed up the last few weeks of political discourse, and damaged already-weak public trust in politicians. Naturally, politicians and commentators from all sides have attacked the government and MPs like Owen Paterson for the lobbying saga that may well continue for the foreseeable future. Sir Keir Starmer and many others in the Labour Party have attacked the government for being “corrupt” and, with a Prime Minister like Boris Johnson, perhaps that’s justified. However, this is a very risky strategy.

First of all, what actually is sleaze? In the last few years, it’s a word that has attained a variety of meanings. To some, it involves money to lobby and influence government policy, while to others, it’s simply an MP having a second job (which many of them do). Whatever idea you subscribe to, political sleaze is far from new. Political sleaze in Britain has been around for centuries. Our country’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, was brought down after 21 years due to an allegedly rigged by-election in 1742.

More recently, we’ve obviously had the Profumo affair during the early sixties, along with the infamous Lavender List in 1976, the Tory sleaze of the 1990s, the Cash for Honours scandal in 2006, and of course the monolithic Expenses scandal in the late 2000s. During these moments of crisis for the government, the opposition bitterly attacked and, in the long run, ended up the beneficiaries of governmental failure. With that, Keir Starmer may well benefit from the events of the past few weeks. However, he should tread very carefully because, if he becomes Prime Minister, he may find himself in the same position currently occupied by Johnson.

Sleaze became the keyword of the 1990s during John Major’s period as Prime Minister. Although he led the Conservatives to a surprise victory in the 1992 election, prospects of success for his government looked gloomy from the beginning due to the UK’s crash out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16th September 1992, otherwise known as Black Wednesday. The economy was one thing, but Major’s “Back To Basics” campaign the following year, described as an attack on the permissive society by one ill-informed adviser, meant that all hell broke loose. The stories of the dodgy-doings of ministers and MPs like David Mellor, Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken (to name just a few) were heaven for Leader of the Opposition Tony Blair.

Blair made sure to capitalise on sleaze and it was undoubtedly successful. In the 1997 election, the Tories were reduced to just 165 MPs with a Labour majority close to 200. However, Blair’s tactics in opposition failed when it came to sleaze in government. The Bernie Ecclestone affair was the first failing of New Labour in the eyes of the public as Ecclestone seemingly donated £1 million to Labour in an attempt to exclude Formula One from a government ban on tobacco companies sponsoring sport. Other stories followed in the thirteen years that followed, including affairs of David Blunkett and John Prescott, along with Tony Blair receiving the pleasure of being the only Prime Minister to be questioned by the police (as a witness only) in 2006 over the Cash for Honours scandal. Blair later expressed regret over attacking Major’s government over sleaze.

Although sleaze is as old as the hills in politics, the events of today are very different. Although negatively affected by scandals, Prime Ministers themselves are very often innocent (at least in this post-Victorian era). Macmillan couldn’t be blamed for Profumo’s actions. Wilson couldn’t be blamed for a list written in lavender ink adviser by Marcia Williams. John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown were all innocent in the scandals of their day. Can the same be said of David Cameron however, or even Boris Johnson?

As a man who has fathered an unknown number of children, been married three times, and has had a very public and well-documented affair, it would be laughable to claim that Johnson can clean up politics. The government’s recent U-turn was committed purely because the Prime Minister dislikes unpopularity, but the damage has already been done.

During the height of Tory sleaze during the nineties, John Major’s government created the Nolan Principles, seven rules for those working in public life in an attempt to clean up politics. Boris Johnson wouldn’t dream of anything like this in a million years. The sleaze will continue. As for Labour, history proves that they will reap the benefits of the government’s troubles and for now, it may just be best to keep quiet and let the public express their anger as they always do.

Image - Flickr (Number 10)



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