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The truth won’t always out: Tiger would still be burning bright if he hadn’t crashed his car

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Was Lance Armstrong unlucky? Not in the moral sense – we know he fully deserved his fall. But what about in terms of simple probability? Was his fall inevitable? Or, having got away with it for so long, could Armstrong have reasonably expected to escape safely into the hills?

The same question could be asked about all great scandals. In analysing events that lead to public disgrace, we comfort ourselves that the truth cannot be silenced indefinitely. I’m not so sure. Take away a single, contingent thread from the story and the ending could easily have been very different.

The fall of Tiger Woods is a classic example. It was not philandering, if that is the right word for it, that led to Woods’s disgrace. It was crashing into a fire hydrant in Florida. If he’d controlled his steering wheel better, Woods could have indefinitely retained his rotating cast of hostesses and escorts. After all, the golfing world had known for years about Woods’s double life. But the story had never broken. The press had been scared to write what they knew because Woods, like Armstrong, froze out journalists who didn’t indulge his controlling personality.

The fans, however, at least the perceptive ones, had also long known that Woods wasn’t the man he pretended to be. Simply watching him on television – snapping and snarling his way around a golf course – was proof enough. Woods’s carefully controlled image as Mr Perfect was fully contradicted by the evidence. But there was little enthusiasm for joining up the dots. We were too lazy to revise the established narrative.

Then suddenly: car crash! Wife wielding golf club! Smashed fire hydrant! Woods in hospital! There was a new urgency in the relationship between the media and the public. Until then, the public’s reverence for Woods had discouraged the media from telling the truth about his double life. That changed when the bonnet of a Cadillac crunched into government property.

It was not the steady drip of rumour or evidence against Woods that led the dam to burst. It was a single dramatic catalyst. That changed the lens through which Woods was seen. The public’s over-reverence was transformed instantly into amused contempt and the man who had been untouchable was suddenly fair game. Woods’s mask of impregnable mastery had slipped forever and the deluge began. Pause for a moment and consider the logic: if Woods had kept a single marital row inside the house, he could easily still be lecturing the world today on family values, backed by advertisers promoting him with fraudulently idyllic family photos.

It is a pattern we see repeated in more serious spheres. The journalistic investigation into phone-hacking was old news long before it became big news. The New York Times investigation about the News of the World broke in September 2010. Yet it didn’t fully penetrate public opinion. Long article, lots of words but old news, no? For all the mounting evidence, it was far from inevitable that the story would develop sufficient momentum to close a newspaper and lead to a massive judge-led enquiry.

The catalyst that changed everything was the revelation that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. Instead of weighing up evidence, public opinion was now driven by a visceral emotional reaction. The hunt to expose the News of the World gained a momentum that would not recede. Without that single revelation the story might well have died down again, as it had many times before.

This brings us back to Armstrong, so long a master at escaping the knot of disgrace. The cyclist controlled his fraud with considerable efficiency for 15 years. The press was muzzled through a mixture of intimidation, complicity and litigation. The cycling authorities were terrified of opening up a Pandora’s box. The peloton was mostly frightened into silence.

Armstrong could have managed this corrupt alliance of interested parties for a long time to come but even he hadn’t accounted for a whistle blower who was prepared to go the whole way, whatever the consequences. This was Floyd Landis, raised a Mennonite in rural Pennsylvania, whose once clear sense of right and wrong had been corrupted by the culture of drug cheating inside Armstrong’s team. Landis won the Tour de France the year after Armstrong’s retirement but immediately failed a doping test. That was routine enough. What was different was the effect the guilt would have on Landis’s attitude towards the truth.

Dopers who confess usually do so in a hedgy, cautious manner. Not Landis. As David Walsh relates in his book Seven Deadly Sins, Landis confessed with an almost religious fervour, as though he was purging his sins and reverting to the values of his childhood. Landis spilled everything. Armstrong had victimised plenty of people and got away with it. Landis wasn’t like other people and that made all the difference. His confession led to the federal investigation that ultimately toppled Armstrong.

There is an air of righteous satisfaction in the public reaction to Armstrong’s fall, but we should be cautious about putting an optimistic spin on his disgrace. The real lesson, depressingly, is that that a cheating bully can survive at the top for a very long time. Indeed, he can survive indefinitely – so long as there isn’t a sensational catalyst that captures the public imagination.

It sounds like a weary defence of Armstrong to say that if he’d had more luck, if just one of his enemies had possessed a different personality, he could have avoided catastrophe. In fact, it is quite the opposite. If he was indeed unlucky, we can sadly deduce that there are plenty more Lance Armstrongs out there, pedalling happily into the hills.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide