The year was 1993 and the British Conservatives had been re-elected for a rare 4th term in office. The then Prime Minister John Major used his conference speech in Blackpool to announce his government’s Back to Basics campaign promoting family values and calling for a return to ‘old core values.’ This speech was soon subject to criticism and ridicule after a series of scandals that became known as Tory Sleaze. The most famous of these was the Cash for Questions scandal where it was alleged that two MPs were bribed to ask questions on behalf of Mohamed Al-Fayed the owner of Harrods. However, it was not just financial impropriety that rocked the Government, a series of sex scandals rocked that Government. In 1994 Conservative Eastleigh Stephen Milligan was found dead wearing only stockings and suspenders. Milligan’s death was blamed on Autoerotic asphyxiation whereby the practice of sexual self-stimulation while causing oneself to experience hypoxia. The other notorious example of Tory Sleaze at that time was Heritage Minister David Mellor after being caught having an affair with an actress.
These financial and sex scandals in addition to internal divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe contributed to the party losing the 1997 general election and Tony Blair’s New Labour coming to power.
The current accusations of Tory sleaze began earlier this year with opposition party’s hoping that once again a Tory Government could be brought down through allegations of sleaze 25 years later. Owen Peterson, the former MP for North Shropshire was forced to resign after being found to have repeatedly lobbied the government on behalf of two companies that were paying him more than £100,000 a year. This was followed by revelations that MP Geoffrey Cox has continued to work as a lawyer and has earned more than £5.5m while continuing to work on his legal career since becoming the Tory MP for Torridge and West Devon in 2005. This was made worse by allegations that he did this legal work from his parliamentary office.
For most of 2021, the Tory’s have enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls as has Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In recent weeks these scandals have begun to hurt his polling numbers. This will likely get worse for him after today’s announcement that the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat at 10 Downing Street broke electoral law. The Electoral Commissions today ruled that the Conservatives were negligent in failing to “fully report a donation of £67,801.72 from Huntswood Associates Limited in October 2020,” the proceeds of which were used for the flat renovations.
The accusations that a Christmas Party was held at 10 Downing Street in December 2020 at a time when COVID-19 restrictions made such gatherings illegal has probably been the most damaging to the Government. Whilst not proven, a clip has emerged of NO 10 officials joking about holding a lockdown Christmas Party. The Government’s handling of the pandemic in 2020 was a disgrace, and I have written about their terrible track record on this blog before. However, to date government has managed to remain ahead in the polls in no small part due to the weakness of the opposition in the last 18 months. The Government has become increasingly arrogant, with one Tory MP claiming that it was “really grim” living on a salary of £82,000 a year and justifying MPs working second jobs. A turning point in the Christmas Party scandal came when it was mentioned on I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here, which may have done more to hold the government to account than anything the opposition has said to date.
The attitude of the Government shows arrogance and contempt for the British public. But is it really sleaze? One can see why Labour, trying to win back some of the “swing” voters it gained in the 1990s might want to revisit the Tory Sleaze tagline. Aside from the fact that voters under 40 generally won’t recall what happened back then, it’s also a lazy attack line. The fact that journalists have also copied it without question shows the weakness of the fourth estate at this time. In fact, what is happening is the governing party have a strong sense of entitlement and do not believe they have to obey the same rules as everyone else.
The likes of Peter Mandelson may enjoy reliving their hay day with Tory Sleaze 2, but it fails to describe what is happening. In 2019 some of the poorest constituencies in the country, particularly in the North East of England, voted Tory for the first time in many years, believing their promises of delivering Brexit and the expected benefits of this. Further, many voters trusted the “one nation” rhetoric and believed the cliche that the Conservatives would govern for all. Many of these voters would have had family or loved ones in care homes during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic who were needlessly exposed to the virus due to lack of testing and PPE. Most would have been unable to celebrate Christmas with friends and family in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions. Very few of these “red wall” voters who helped the Conservatives win in 2019 would earn anything like £82,000.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock may have lost his job after photos emerged of his kissing an aide and this was a breach of social distancing rules. But this pales in comparison to the taxpayer money wasted on a track and trace system that didn’t work or discharging patients from NHS hospitals to social care settings in March 2020 without doing COVID-19 test, causing thousands of preventable deaths. An unlawful Christmas Party at 10 Downing Street may well do lasting damage to Prime Minister Boris Johnsons tenure in office, but again this is minor compared with failing to act earlier to stop the spread of coronavirus in 2020 during both the first and second wave, and again now by only just implementing ‘Plan B’ enforcing mask-wearing and vaccinations passes in public spaces to stop the spread of the Omicron variant. Kissing aides and Christmas Party’s are the straw that broke the camels back for many voters, to win back their trust a there will need to be a change not only in the style of political leadership but also the substance.
In 1993 the Conservatives back to basics campaign backfired as it raised the moral bar by which its MPs were expected to live and inevitably many fell far short of this standard. By contrast, Boris Johnson never tried to place himself on a moral pedestal so talk of sleaze will not have the same impact. Voters in the UK are increasingly tired of this government, what they are looking for is a credible alternative whether from within the Conservatives or the Opposition. When Boris Johnson first became UK Prime Minister I wrote a blog post acknowledging his talents. The Prime Minister is a strong campaigner and even now could well go on to win the next election. This thing that will stop him winning is not sleaze and scandal, but a viable alternative.