No hooray for Henry

The disgrace of a Tory MP and the antics of his flamboyant son are as much about class as money

The sympathy for Derek Conway was quick to evaporate. When the trouble began for the Old Bexley and Sidcup MP some friends - and he does have a few - kept quiet because they were reluctant to criticise him in public. After it became clear that more than £80,000 had been paid to Conway's two sons for little or no actual work, the Tory MP's disgrace seemed complete, his career over. The whip had been withdrawn, almost certainly permanently, which meant that he would not be able to stand as a Conservative at the next general election. There have been demands for a police inquiry into his actions. For a man who relished his closeness to the party heavyweight David Davis, and his position as an influential chairman of various Tory committees, it seemed a cruel and vertiginous fall.

Very swiftly, however, as more stories appeared about the extravagant antics of the MP's elder son, Henry, the fellow feeling for a long-serving colleague disappeared.

"I'm incredibly sorry for him because he's a good friend, but he should step down immediately and leave the country," says one Tory MP, with a curious sense of personal loyalty. "Explains another: "There's a lot of anger about the sons. If the taxpayers' money had gone on producing a brain surgeon they might have said it was well spent. But all this stuff coming out will just disgust people so much."

The contrast between Derek and Henry Conway is stark. Conway Sr has held his current constituency since 2001, and was previously MP for Shrewsbury from 1983 until 1997. Well-known in the Commons, if not in the country, he has always made much of his northern roots and his working-class and secondary-modern upbringing. Henry, on the other hand, like his younger brother and "co-worker" at his father's Westminster office, went to Harrow, where fees are over £8,000 per term. There is nothing particularly unusual, in itself, in the son of a Tory MP having gone to a leading private school. It's what Henry Conway has chosen to do after a privileged upbringing partly funded out of the public purse that has left a bad taste in the mouth. Giving interviews about "only" being able to afford £500 jackets and co-writing a history of clothes called Knit Couture are not considered signs of great achievement. "His job appears to be throwing parties at clubs for spoilt trust-fund kids," says one unimpressed Tory worker. News that he held a "F*** Off I'm Rich" party at a Chelsea nightclub last November says it all.

One regular attender of the parties Henry organises says: "Accessories are everything to him. He always wears skin-tight trousers, a shirt unbuttoned to his nipples and a sparkly cravat. He loves big brooches, too." Describing himself as "blond, bouncy and one for the boys", Henry may be flamboyant - he has also said he deserves the title "Queen Sloane" - but he is serious about fashion. Three years ago he wrote a learned piece for this very magazine about an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet his lifestyle is not one that fellow Tories feel provides any kind of excuse for the misuse of his father's parliamentary allowance.

And Derek Conway is not doing himself any favours, either. "He's trying to play the class card," says one MP, "saying that David Cameron and George Osborne can afford to cut back on expenses because they're public school boys from wealthy backgrounds. But it doesn't wash." One MP points out that his student daughter pulls pints to earn extra money. "She's working. That's what you do," he says simply.

Some think that Conway was "psychologically damaged" by losing his seat in 1997. "He thinks he and his family lost out, that he gave his pound of flesh to politics and it was time to be repaid." If so, it has proved to be a price too high.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God