Disgraced MPs should follow Profumo's example

The worst expenses abusers should carry out Profumo-style good works

I am instinctively against the form of retrospective justice being applied to MPs' expenses. Sir Thomas Legg's review seems to have pandered to what Harriet Harman chillingly described as "the court of public opinion". (The court may be with the left on bank bonuses but it also supports capital punishment. I'd rather a precedent wasn't set.) Britain should be governed by the rule of law, not by panic inquiries and the whims of public opinion.

But the debate over the legitimacy of Legg's measures has largely ignored the question of how MPs can restore their reputation. If anything, the repayments only remind voters of the original abuses.

The most egregious offenders, Anthony Steen, Margaret Moran, Douglas Hogg and Elliot Morley, may have something to learn from John Profumo. Profumo, secretary of state for war under Harold Macmillan, was forced to resign after admitting that he had lied to parliament over his affair with the call girl Christine Keeler. His departure destroyed the public's belief in the moral superiority of the ruling class and paved the way for Labour's 1964 election victory.

But after his withdrawal from politics, Profumo refused to display any anger or greivance over his decline. Instead, he dedicated the rest of his life to good works at Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. He began as a volunteer cleaning toilets and later served as the charity's chief fundraiser. A man whose name had become a byword for scandal and disgrace became equally synonymous with philanthropic endeavour.

Profumo, with his long atonement, is now more esteemed than many of his contemporaries. Should MPs wish to demonstrate that contrition is more than a financial transaction they should follow his example.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.