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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt