by Tom Harris
As with many previous political scandals, it was my wife who offered a sane perspective.
“When you were a minister, you went on foreign trips, didn’t you”?
“A couple, yes”.
“Well, if you’d told me that you were taking our best man with you on one of them, I would have thought that was nice. But if you’d taken him on 14 of them, I would have asked if I could come instead on at least one of them”.
Which pretty much sums up how odd “Foxgate” (do we really have to call it that)? actually is. And how odd its main protagonist is.
Not that Liam Fox is any weirder than your average high-flying minister, because there’s something of the oddball in anyone who reckons that a career in politics is an acceptable way for a grown up to earn a living.
The most remarkable aspect of the last week is not that we have seen the departure of the defence secretary in circumstances that can best be described as baffling. No, the most remarkable aspect of the last week is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.
Politics is one of those subjects that is frequently frowned upon in polite company. Not because it leads to arguments (it does) or because it’s dull (it is) but because it’s just downright odd.
Take students. See that chap? The one who spends all his time handing out leaflets asking you to come to some rally or other, or to boycott a certain brand of chocolate because its logo is offensive to dolphins or something? He’s going to be the president of the student union some time soon, if he isn’t already. And in ten years’ time his peculiar lack of social skills and spectacular failure to have any interests outside politics will have propelled him to the very frontline of his party.
And that goes some way to explaining why weirdos become ministers: they have the time to commit to shinning up that greasy poll, because no-one else wants to spend any time with them. And when they become a cabinet member, they’re perplexed that no-one else can understand their excuses for their behaviour: “Well, what’s wrong with accidentally bumping into your best man 14 times when you make an unscheduled stop-over in Dubai? That must happen to most people, surely…”?
In other cases, disaster falls on individuals because they’re too damn normal. Like Chris Huhne, for instance. He stands accused of something that, let’s face it, most people who have come close to losing their driving licence may have contemplated at least once: “If you really loved me you’d say you were driving at the time”. Not that I’m accusing Huhne of anything, incidentally – no way.
In fact the weirdness of Huhnegate, lies not in the alleged offence of persuading his (now ex) wife to accept his driving licence endorsements, but in using his wedding pictures to win votes shortly before he left his wife. Why would you do that? It’s not just bad judgment – it’s bad taste. And deeply, deeply weird. And it goes some way to explaining why so few of his parliamentary colleagues have been queuing up to support him in his current travails.
Only in the rarefied world of Westminster can an intelligent person’s judgment be so skewed, so compromised, that they imagine that such hypocrisy is acceptable, or even unnoticed. It’s a bit like campaigning against rivals by criticising their parliamentary expenses, then having to resign from the Cabinet because you’ve wrongly claimed forty grand yourself. Now, that would be weird.
But the weirdest thing about Lawsgate (sorry), like Fox after him, was his excuse: he had no alternative to illegally claiming the money for his accommodation because he didn’t want to admit he was gay. Alternatively, he could just have ticked the box on the expenses form which said: “If you would prefer for your sexual preferences not to be made public, please tick here”.
Even the most jaded, most cynical observers of Westminster must have been scratching their heads at the behavior of cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin, mind you. Scurrying out of the office into St James’s Park at seven in the morning to dispose of constituents’ paperwork in the waste paper bins? Only the squirrels and the pigeons will know if he was given to muttering: “They’re all out to get me… They’re watching me… Well, I’ll show them…” as he scuttled from bin to bin like a demented bag lady.
It reminds me of the passage in Tony Blair’s memoirs, when he recalls the excuses of famed badger-baiter and druid, Ron Davies, after his unfortunate encounter with some dodgy individuals on Clapham Common. “It could happen to anyone, Tony,” pleaded Davies. “Except, not really, Ron,” replied the great helmsman, accurately.
And lastly in this cavalcade of madness and whimsy that has been the Tory-Lib Dem government is Vince. The business secretary may not be regarded any more as the sage of Chiswick, or even as being competent in the use of a pocket calculator. But amid all the scandals and silliness that has bedeviled David Cameron’s ministers, Vince stands alone as a lodestar of sanity.
For what was his crime? To allow his vanity as an elderly man to get the better of him. When confronted by a couple of attractive young ladies, eager to benefit from his wisdom, Vince duly did what so many daft old buggers – and many younger ones – would have done: he showed off. Stupid? Yes. Indiscreet? Thankfully, yes. But weird? Not a bit of it. Virtually every man who read something of that particular “sting” had more than a modicum of sympathy for its victim.
Nevertheless, the oddness of government continues seamlessly. Fox has been replaced by Philip Hammond, outwardly shaped like a human but in fact a calculating machine so ruthless and efficient that he is said to make John Redwood look like Graham Norton.
I’m looking forward to future excuses along the lines of “it was only logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South and a prospective Labour candidate for first minister.