In a week that saw Boris Johnson caught up in multiple political scandals, any one of which would have brought down a political career back in the old days when this stuff still mattered, I am taking the time to remind us all of incidents in British politics that have fizzled out into what is relatively nothing in the recent past. In other words, political scandals where the ramifications were short term and small scale for the politician at the centre of it, particularly compared to what used to end careers not all that long ago. I think this tells us a lot about what is wrong with politics at the moment.
Once upon a time, even a scandal that would seem insignificant by today’s standards could bring a permanent end to someone’s political career. Back in 2009, when the expenses scandal brought the whole of the political class under fire, one would have thought that perhaps the bar for career ending scandals would get lower – instead, the bar seems to have got so high as to have almost entirely disappeared.
If you’re wondering how we got here, what follows is five British political scandals that ultimately fizzled out to nothing, in chronological order:
- The Liam Fox “Adam Werritty” scandal (2011)
A strange one that has never been fully decoded, it’s best to start this out by saying that Liam Fox and Adam Werritty had a very close friendship. Werritty was Fox’s best man at his wedding in 2005. This was the partial explanation for the scandal that followed, but it only really acts as a bit of background. In the year leading up to the scandal, while Fox was Secretary of State for Defence, Werritty accompanied Fox on 18 foreign business trips and was at Fox’s side during the majority of his official engagements. Yet Werritty was never officially employed as a civil servant or by the Conservative party and was never even security cleared. Even odder, when the civil service started an investigation into the matter, Fox claimed that Werritty had never worked for him in either an official or unofficial capacity.
The pressure around this got too great and Fox had to resign his post. At any time pre-2010, this would have been the end of Fox’s frontline political career. Yet in 2016, Fox stood in the Conservative party leadership contest and no one batted an eyelid. After May became PM, Fox was back in the cabinet as her International Trade Secretary, meaning the whole Werritty scandal – which was never satisfactorily resolved – had no real lasting effect on Fox’s career whatsoever.
2. Emily Thornberry and the English flag house (2014)
On November 21, 2014, Emily Thornberry thought it would be a good idea to tweet a picture of a house covered in English flags with the accompanying sentence: “Image from #Rochester”. Soon enough, the internet was ablaze with people complaining about Thornberry’s snobbishness and lack of patriotism. Given it was emblematic of the biggest problem Labour faced at the time – lack of empathy with actual working class English people, which come to think of it, is still their big problem today – Thornberry was forced to resign from her post as Shadow Attorney General.
Yet she was back as a Shadow Minister within the year, was back in the shadow cabinet just over a year after the incident, and was Shadow Foreign Secretary less than two years after the Rochester tweet. The end result of the scandal was Thornberry was promoted, which became something of a thing generally from here on out.
3. Cameron and “Piggate” (2015)
I remember the build up to revelations regarding David Cameron allegedly having stuck his willy in a pig’s mouth as part of a university initiation ceremony. Everyone in the press knew about it and right before it came out, it was assumed that the story would finish Cameron’s career. And yet when it broke, it was met with a brief chuckle and then a shrug by the British public. No one really cared. As it turned out, Cameron’s political career was finished less than a year after this “scandal”, but it had nothing to do with pigs but rather his own political stupidity regarding the EU referendum.
4. Boris Johnson and Obama’s “ancestral dislike” comment (2016)
In the heat of the EU referendum campaign, Boris Johnson wrote a an article for The Sun that said that Obama’s “back of the queue” comment on behalf of the Remain campaign was shaped by the then US president’s “ancestral dislike” of Britain due to his “part-Kenyan” background. This comment was special in that it contained something for everyone, being both racist and anti-American at the same time. In another time period, this would have cut dead Johnson’s chances of ever being prime minister – but this clearly isn’t the time period we’re living thought presently.
5. Priti Patel and the Israel scandal (2017)
While Secretary of State for International Development, Patel met with Israeli officials without it being official, ie, without telling anyone in government or having any British officials present. This behaviour is off-limits for very obvious reasons and Patel was forced to resign. But in keeping with the post-2010 mood of anything goes in British politics, Patel was back in the cabinet within less than two years, getting a large promotion to Home Secretary along the way. Her flouting of the rules paused her career but then ultimately led to a big promotion. Bad behaviour is not only not really punished in politics these days, it is often times actively rewarded.
Matt (Bristol) says
The narrative underpinning all the above is that when factions within the big parties schism and form and reform, there is the opportunity to resurrect ‘failed’ careers and wipe the scandal-slate clean because the new bosses need new henchpeople and will take the previous leaders’ discards to form their new gang.
I’d also point out the other unwritten rule that to be really damaging in this post modern age you must go against ‘type’. So none of these scandals broke with people’s perception of what a leader from X party should or shouldn’t be like (Cameron and John are actually posh elitists with total disdain for good behaviour, not a shock, Labour cabinet ministers despise rightwing working class people, not ashock to the perceived reality).
What is truly worrying about that with regards to Werrity and Patel — the worst ones for the overall culture of British politics, in my view — is that that implies (potentially) the public tolerates corruption and cronyism as the expected cost of Tory leadership and may be making space for them to push the boundaries further in future … this may also mean that a future government of the left would be juddged more harshly in this regard than a Tory one.
What would be really interesting, would be if we had a non-elitist non-Tory party of the right or centre-right or some kind of socially-conservative/ traditionalist tendency to act as a comparator to see whether corruption would be expected of that party too. But lacking the dimensional time-hopper, that’s not possible.
What is truly worrying about that with regards to Werrity and Patel — the worst ones for the overall culture of British politics, in my view
Why are they ‘the worst ones’? It seems to me that the man reason they had little impact on the public is that it’s hard to see what they actually did wrong, in the sense of what harm was done.
I mean it’s obvious in both cases that rules were technically broken. Mr Werrity obviously saw and heard things that he shouldn’t have done. But as far as I can work out, nobody has suggested that he profited from any of the knowledge (or at least they haven’t been able to prove that he did), nor that he had access to any information that was actually classified. And Patel shouldn’t have met with anyone without officials present, but Israel is an ally — it’s not like she met with Russian, Chinese or Iranian officials, for example.
Both of these cases very much have the look of someone having done something foolish and being caught out on a technicality, rather than anything dishonest or corrupt.
But as you think they were ‘the worst ones’ presumably you think differently? Why?