Why Weiner got the chop

How do some shamed politicians cling on, while others lose everything?

It's not just the weather that's been steamy in DC. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner has finally bowed to the political pressure and resigned - a promising career dragged down by the scandal over the lewd photographs he sent to women on line.

In the end, he simply proved too much of a distraction to the Democratic party. It was time to go. "I got into politics to help give voice to the many who simply did not have one," he said. "Now I will be looking for other ways to contribute my talents."

The press conference itself was a fittingly bawdy affair, with constant heckles from a Howard Stern show producer, along the lines of "You pervert!" More seriously, Weiner made an apology to his wife Huma Abeidin - who was not at his side during the press conference. She's said to be "devastated" and "shocked" by his behaviour. According to reports, the Congressman made the decision to go after lengthy discussions with his wife, who'd been travelling abroad with her boss, Hillary Clinton. One can only imagine the conversation those two women had on the plane ride home.

Except President Bill Clinton stayed in office throughout the Lewinsky scandal - and there's the rub. How come some politicians manage to survive the most humiliating disclosures, while others are left with no choice but to go?

Louisiana's senator David Vitter hung on despite being embroiled in a prostitution scandal four years ago - he remained popular with his colleagues and easily won re-election last year. New York's former mayor Eliot Spitzer - aka Client Number Nine - failed to keep his job.

Earlier this year, it took another New York Congressman, the Republican Chris Lee, just eight hours to resign - after the topless photographs of himself supposedly sent to a woman via an internet dating ad were revealed to the world. In April, Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada, stepped down suddenly, two years after news of his extramarital affair with a former campaign aide emerged. A decision to launch an Ethics committee inquiry into his behaviour was the last straw.

Weiner, too, was facing a possible ethics investigation into whether he violated House rules. Then again, he did lie about what happened. For more than a week he tried to claim that the embarrassing photos sent from his Twitter account must have been the work of a hacker. Then last week - yet more lewd pictures emerged, and it became clear that at least six other women were involved. By Wednesday a porn actress had emerged on the celebrity website TMZ claiming she was among them. This was a scandal that could clearly run and run - something the Democratic leadership was determined to avoid. Eventually even President Obama voiced his public frustration: "If it was me, I would resign". Weiner tried announcing that he would merely take a period of leave and work on "becoming a better husband". But he'd already become a political liability.

The Democrats are clearly relieved by his decision: the party is hoping to re-take Weiner's seat in a special election - the seat he'd easily held for seven terms. And they're hoping there'll be no more distractions hampering their efforts to win back control of the House in 2012.

These are steamy times in DC. Weiner's Twitpix are merely the latest in weeks of lurid headlines featuring, among others, John Edwards, Arnie Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Good times for the tabloids and late night comedy shows. For the noble tradition of politics, not so much.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle