At times like this, I think of Stafford Cripps. A vegetarian and teetotaller, who reputedly lunched exclusively on carrots, Cripps was Labour chancellor during the postwar austerity years. Even after he devalued the pound, the public gave him a positive approval rating of 11 per cent. Before that, despite strict rationing and income tax at nine shillings (45p), it was 33 per cent. Cripps came from a wealthy background but, to look at him, you wouldn’t have known it. For most of his time in office, he was very thin and very ill, and he died shortly after stepping down. He was described – by a diplomat, not a Labour colleague – as “the nearest thing to a saint I have ever met”.
How unlike our own dear contemporary politicians, for some of whom life seems to be one champagne reception after another, and many of whom so visibly enjoy the high life. Corfu isn’t at all exotic, or even particularly fashionable. But there’s one almost ludicrously beautiful enclave on the north-eastern coast which is much favoured by the people with the kind of cut-glass accent you normally find in Surrey and Bucks.
It was there, as most of us now know, that an extraordinary political drama unfolded this summer, involving a luxury villa, a yacht, an expensive restaurant and lots of parties and dinners. With British businesses going bust by the day, thousands being evicted from their homes and pensioners facing winter with the heating turned down, this does not sound to me like the sort of thing that will enhance the country’s admiration for its rulers.
But I’m old Labour. As, I suppose, was Cripps.
Rothschild thought it jolly bad form to leak juicy gossip exchanged between rich folk
It will perhaps be called Corfugate or Yachtgate. Here’s what we know. The villa belongs to the Rothschild family who bought the land before the Second World War along with a section of the Albanian coast opposite so as not to spoil their view. The yacht belongs to Russia’s richest man, Oleg Deripaska, who made his fortune in aluminium and also owns Leyland Daf. The restaurant is the Agni Taverna, allegedly Corfu’s best, which people like to say can only be reached by boat, though it is easily accessible by road or, for that matter, foot. Some of the partying and dining was on the yacht, some at the villa, with Nat Rothschild playing host. He will become Baron Rothschild when the present one dies and, as well as being heir to the family fortune, has his own hedge fund. He is said to spend more time sleeping in his private jet than in his five houses. The guests included Peter Mandelson, the former EU trade commissioner now restored to the cabinet as Business Secretary; George Osborne, the shadow chancellor; Andrew Feldman, the Tories’ chief fundraiser and an old Oxford friend of David Cameron’s; assorted media figures, including Rupert Murdoch; and various PR folk, such as Roland Rudd, a City publicist said to be worth £50m.
Very briefly – you will bear in mind that everybody denies what everybody else says – there are three allegations. First, Mandelson told Osborne at Agni that he thought Gordon Brown was a bit of a plonker, or words to that effect. Second, Mandelson and Deripaska have “links” (a newspaper word which means “we think something dodgy is going on, but we’re not sure what”). Mandelson signed off an EU decision to lift tariffs on aluminium imports, obviously favourable to an aluminium tycoon. In Corfu, he stayed on the Russian’s yacht.
Though he claimed never to have met Deripaska before the aluminium decision, it turned out that they dined in Moscow in January 2005, with Nat Rothschild also present. Third, Osborne and Feldman talked to Deripaska about a possible donation to Tory funds, though the law states British parties cannot take money from foreigners.
The first two allegations probably reached the press because Osborne started leaking to discredit the new Business Secretary. Rothschild spilled the beans on the Deripaska donation, in a letter to the Times, because he thought it jolly bad form for Osborne – an Oxford contemporary and fellow member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club – to leak juicy gossip exchanged between privileged folk and allow the unwashed to read it in the papers.
My mind goes back now, not only to Cripps, but also to the 1930s when politicians, aristocrats, diplomats and businessmen met at country house weekends and decided Hitler was quite a decent chap who should be allowed to have most of what he wanted; and to the early 1960s when half the ruling class seemed to be involved in weekend sex orgies, complete with specially hired prostitutes, on country estates.
Those matters concerned only the Tories, but this one now involves both government and opposition, showing, in the northern phrase, how they all piss in the same pot. The details, obscured by denials and counter-denials, will escape most voters. But there is a sense, perhaps more in the middle class than the working class, that a super-class of rich people lives on a different planet from the rest of us and most politicians have been bought by them.
While the rest of us get screwed, our rulers, enjoying parties and freebies, making deals and exchanging gossip, are too busy to care.
Peter Wilby edited the New Statesman from 1998-2005