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21 January 2014

Why do the Lib Dems suffer so many scandals?

From "Paddy Pantsdown", to Charles Kennedy, Mark Oaten, David Laws and Chris Huhne, the party has often been in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

By George Eaton

If it feels as if the Lib Dems suffer a lot of scandals for a small party, it’s because they do. To refresh: in 1992, the party’s first leader Paddy Ashdown was forced to disclose an affair five years earlier with his secretary Tricia Howard after the tabloids learned of the relationship (prompting the brilliant Sun headline “Paddy Pantsdown“). On 7 January 2006, Charles Kennedy resigned from the same position after announcing that he had sought “professional help” for a “drink problem”.

Just two weeks later, Mark Oaten (who had been due to run Kennedy’s campaign for re-election) quit as the party’s home affairs spokesman after the News of the World revealed that he had an affair with a rent boy. Five days later (it was a surreal month), Simon Hughes announced that he too had had gay relationships despite running a homophobic campaign against Labour candidate Peter Tatchell during the 1983 Bermondsey by-election in which he was presented as “the straight choice” (for which he has since apologised). 

Since entering government, the party has seen one cabinet minister, David Laws, forced to resign for claiming expenses to pay rent to his partner, and another, Chris Huhne, imprisoned for perverting the course of justice by allowing Vicky Pryce to accept speeding points on his behalf. Last year, MP David Ward had the whip withdrawn after writing on Holocaust Memorial Day that he was “saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”, and, most recently, Chris Rennard, the party’s former chief executive and elections maestro, was suspended after allegations of sexual harassment.  

Why do the Lib Dems, generally thought of as a dull but worthy bunch, produce such an inordinate number of scandals? Perhaps the most plausible explanation is the lack of scrutiny the party received before entering government. The Laws, Hune and Rennard scandals all have their origins in the years before 2010. Oaten memorably recounted how shocked he was when one of his rent boy’s companions recognised him from TV and greeted him with the words “You’re Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat MP”, prompting him to reportedly reply: “It can’t be me, I must have a double. I’m not a politician”. No senior Lib Dem frontbencher would attempt this defence today. Another theory put to me by one Westminster source is that “liberals tend to be very permissive and thus more prone to scandal.” Whatever the truth, Nick Clegg will surely hope that his party’s closet has now finally been purged of skeletons. 

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