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End of the party

Unlike the Profumo affair, which had no lasting significance, the scandal over MPs’ expenses is the

A government that had been in power for too long was showing, so critics said, signs of tiredness. There were mutterings about the prime minister. Then a terrible scandal broke. “It is a moral issue,” thundered the Times, arguing that 12 years of government by the same party had left the nation at a spiritually low ebb. Gordon Brown and MPs’ expenses in 2009? No. Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair in 1963.

John Profumo was the Conservative secretary of state for war. In 1961, at a weekend party at Cliveden, Lord Astor’s country house in Buckinghamshire, he had begun a short affair with Christine Keeler, a high-class call girl. He ended it after just four weeks, having been warned by the cabinet secretary that she was simultaneously sharing her favours with a Captain Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché to London.

The story broke in the spring of 1963. Summoned by the Tory whips late at night, Profumo, under sedation, prepared a personal statement for the House of Commons. Unwisely, but understandably, he tried to protect his family by denying impropriety.

But Profumo had reckoned without the new leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, who had succeeded Hugh Gaitskell in February 1963. Gaitskell would almost certainly have kept out of it, partly because he was himself vulnerable to the moralists, being in the throes of an affair with the society hostess Ann Fleming. But Wilson, pharisaically denying any concern with private morality, insisted that national security was at stake, though it was unlikely Keeler’s pillow talk consisted of questions about the precise location of Nato missile sites in West Germany. Profumo, however, was found to have deceived the Commons, and duly resigned.

Macaulay famously said that there was no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. Profumo’s resignation opened the floodgates of national self-righteousnessness. The result seemed farcical even at the time. Macmillan set up an inquiry under Lord Denning, another fully paid-up member of the Pharisee tendency, to look at the security implications. There were none, but this did not stop Denning from licking his lips at the moral failings of ministers and others.

Some of the evidence was, he insisted, so “disgusting” that he had had to send the “lady typists” out of the room while it was being delivered. According to the somewhat unreliable statements of various call girls, naked Conservative ministers were in the habit of holding orgies, serviced by a masked man wearing nothing but an apron. A minister had apparently been discovered with a prostitute under the bushes in Richmond Park. Worst of all, seven high court judges appeared to have been involved in orgies. “Seven,” Macmillan responded. “I can’t believe it. One or two – perhaps even three, but surely not seven.”

Paradoxically, the Profumo affair delayed rather than hastened Macmillan’s resignation. He had privately decided to leave in the summer of 1963, but now felt that he could not appear to be driven out by scandal. Had he retired as planned, his successor would probably have been the chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who would have proved a more formidable opponent for Wilson in the October 1964 general election than Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

Making the affair public served Wilson’s purpose by undermining the Tories. It had no other long-term significance. Indeed, it is not of the slightest importance to any but the prurient. The expenses scandal is quite different. It casts a shadow over the whole political system, revealing a widespread culture of abuse by politicians from all parties. The Profumo affair exposed private matters that ought to have remained private. The expenses scandal exposes matters that ought never to have been private in the first place. The culture it has revealed, which Nick Clegg described as one based on “unwritten conventions, unspoken rules and nods and winks”, symbolises a parliament that has become insulated from the public. Unlike Profumo, this scandal will have long-term consequences because it fuels the demand, already strong, for reforms to transform a top-down system into something more accountable and transparent.

Profumo himself behaved rather more honourably than the current bunch, resigning not only his office, but also his seat in the Commons. He played no further part in public affairs, devoting the rest of his life to good works at Toynbee Hall, for which he was to receive a CBE and personal recognition from the Queen. He refused other awards, including an honorary fellowship from his Oxford college, because he did not want to reignite old memories. If only one could expect the recalcitrants of today, such as Douglas Hogg and Elliot Morley, to behave as well. The unlikelihood of it is just one measure of the abyss that separates 1963 from today.

The Profumo affair was a minor indiscretion by an unimportant cabinet minister that somehow came to be transformed into a narrative of national moral decline. Voters then could express their resentment by switching to Labour or the Liberals. No such luxury is available today, as the expenses crisis affects the whole political class. No party is free from taint. That is what makes it the most serious constitutional crisis of modern times. To cure it, we need not a new Lord Denning, but the opening up of a political system that has remained sealed off from the people for far too long.

So, how should the public channel its anger constructively? Lord Tebbit has suggested opting out of the party system by abstaining, or voting for a minor grouping, though not the British National Party. But that is the very opposite of what is needed. Instead of opting out, the public should opt in. They should join the party that best represents their convictions and seek to reform it. A first step would be to press for a vote of no confidence in MPs who have abused the system, in effect deselecting them. Then voters should insist that they, rather than small and often unrepresentative cliques, choose their candidates, through primary elections.

Before the 2008 London mayoral election, David Cameron instituted an open primary in which all voters, and not just Conservative Party members, could decide between the various Conservative candidates. There is no reason why this innovation should not be copied for elections to the House of Commons. Then voters would be able to satisfy themselves of the integrity of candidates before endorsing them.

But reform of the parties will not be enough, for our political parties are dying on their feet as mass organisations. The reason for this was well summed up by Gordon Brown as long ago as 1992. “In the past,” he said, “people interested in change have joined the Labour Party, largely to elect agents of change. Today, they want to be agents of change themselves.” The expenses scandal has highlighted the need for far-reaching reform of the relationship between government and the people. Trust in politicians will not be regained for a long time, if ever. The people will now want to take political decisions for themselves, rather than leaving them to their MP.

One reason why Labour’s constitutional reforms have not rejuvenated our politics is that they have redistributed power not between government and the people, but between elites, between politicians in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and between politicians and judges. The members of the officer class have been dividing up the spoils between themselves. The next stage of reform must be to redistribute downwards, not sideways. That will involve much more direct democracy to supplement, though not replace, our representative system.

So far the referendum has been used in Britain only for constitutional issues, and only when governments feel inclined to use it. However, the Local Government Act 2000 allowed, for the first time, 5 per cent of registered electors in any local authority area to secure a referendum on directly elected mayors. If mayors, why not other matters? Why should not voters be able to secure a referendum on the organisation of schools in their area, on the size of their local authority budget, or even the organisation of the National Health Service? The instruments of direct democracy need to be wrested from the political class so that the people themselves can trigger the use of these tools.

The green paper The Governance of Britain, issued when Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, declared that “in the past, individuals and communities have tended to be seen as passive recipients of services provided by the state. However, in recent years, people have demonstrated that they are willing to take a more active role.” It is time to put these brave words into effect.

Voters should use the crisis, not to withdraw from politics, but to open up the system. I have described in more detail how this might be done in my forthcoming book, The New British Constitution. The expenses scandal serves only to underline that today, in Britain, the age of pure representative democracy is over.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of politics and government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” will be published Hart on 8 June (£17.95 paperback)

Diary of Deceit

1936 The secretary of state for the colonies, Jimmy Thomas, leaks the Budget
1963 The war secretary, John Profumo, quits over an affair with a call girl
1973 Lords Lambton and Jellicoe resign after confessing to using prostitutes
1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal is sealed by bribing members of the Saudi royal family
1986 Splits in the Thatcher government over a rescue bid for the British helicopter manufacturer Westland lead to targeted leaks from inside cabinet
1993 John Major’s relaunch campaign, Back to Basics, is derailed by Tory sex scandals
1998 Peter Mandelson, trade and industry secretary, quits after press exposes undisclosed £373,000 house purchase loan
2001 Mandelson resigns again over allegations that he fast-tracked British citizenship for an Indian businessman in return for Dome bailout
2006 Labour found to have recommended peerages in return for money
January 2009 Allegations surface against four Labour peers concerning fee charges for influencing legislation
April 2009 Gordon Brown apologises after Damian McBride’s planned online smear campaign against Tory MPs is discovered
May 2009 Publication of MPs’ expense claims forces Speaker to quit

By Anisha Ahmed

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad