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21 January 2011

The sadness of Alan Johnson’s resignation

As my experience with Paddy Ashdown taught me, politics needs people with messy lives.

By Olly Grender

Sometimes I wish we were French. I wish that we were not raised on the false morality of Carry On Camping. Instead, I wish we lived in a country where someone deeply human like Alan Johnson didn’t feel he had to resign because of sex. Where William Hague doesn’t have to write about infertility and where marriage remains a strictly private matter between two individuals.

The first really difficult media issue I ever dealt with was when Paddy Ashdown spoke publicly about his extramarital affair in 1992. At the time, as a naive press officer, I was genuinely surprised when journalists asked me whether or not he was going to resign. It just hadn’t occurred to me that he needed to. For me, his politics had not changed, his leadership had not changed.

All the senior men in the party hid, quite literally, in their offices. We were getting slaughtered on air with no one to talk for the party. I sent a grovelling message to the elderly Baroness Nancy Seear, Economist, Titan, Good Egg, who stormed into the press office and announced loudly, in her best Margaret Rutherford tones: “My dear, I have a past and I don’t know many people who don’t. Now, which studio do you want me to go into first?”

No doubt the Sunday papers will be full to the brim with the kind of stuff that belongs in Coronation Street and EastEnders, rather than parliament. But there will be few revelations that would convince me that Johnson had to go.

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If, on the other hand, this was the moment, he felt, to get away from the poison whispering campaign regarding his competence on the economy from his own side, well, that I would understand.

I think people have messy lives; many journalists, many politicians and many voters. Politics needs people with messy lives, politics needs people like Nancy Seear and Alan Johnson. No one should have to resign because of that.