What would politics be without scandal and the schadenfreude that gives glee to governmental rivals but that ultimately will hurt the governed? As the US deals with its contentious Plame Affair, let’s turn our sights to Britain and its latest bit of nasty scandal, “Betsygate,” a comedy and tragedy of errors filled with sniping, political jockeying, and bad karma.
British Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith has spent much of the summer lambasting Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair over many issues, including Downing Street’s role in “sexing up” intelligence reports to win support for the Iraq invasion and in the mysterious alleged suicide of a government weapons-expert last July. But now, it is apparent that the barb-hurling top Tory is living in a house made of glass.
The story in short: Duncan Smith’s wife, Betsy, received government money — –£18,000 — to do parliament-related secretarial work for her husband over a 15-month period. BBC investigative reporter Michael Crick came forward with a dossier of evidence charging that Mrs. Duncan Smith did not do –£18,000 worth of work. The UK’s Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph printed the allegations, and the Tory leader threatened to sue, so Crick took his findings to Sir Philip Mawer, the nation’s parliamentary commissioner for standards. An official investigation was launched and then, rhetorical stones started flying Duncan Smith’s way — but not from Labour. They came from his own party.
Among those questioned in the standards commissioner’s inquiry was a Tory party loyalist and possible parliamentary candidate who sent an e-mail raising concerns about Duncan Smith and his spouse that was leaked to Michael Crick. The following comes from the Oct. 18 Independent:
Politicians are “associated with sleaze and appear to be self-serving”, the woman at the centre of allegations against Iain Duncan Smith said yesterday.
Vanessa Gearson, the former head of the Conservative leader’s office, made the remarks as she gave evidence to the inquiry into suggestions that his wife did not do enough work to justify her pay as his secretary.
In a newspaper interview Ms. Gearson, a deputy director of Conservative Central Office, said: “It’s a crying shame politicians are now viewed with distrust. We’ve seen massive voter apathy. Politicians are associated with sleaze and seen to be self-serving. I don’t believe that serves us or the democratic process.”
Ms Gearson, 36, the prospective parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham, made a thinly veiled warning to party managers not to remove her from the key Tory target seat. She told the Gloucestershire Echo: “I’ve placed myself in a sensitive position. It was something I did not do lightly. But I felt strongly that the position I’d taken was a just one and that I should stand up for the principles that I believe in.”
Interestingly, Duncan Smith — or IDS, as the UK papers refer to him — is being attacked by members of his own party more than by those in Labour. Tony Blair has been largely silent on the issue, and his wife Cherie has said publicly that she sympathizes with the embattled Mrs. Duncan Smith. (Of course, this may be linked to Mrs. Blair’s own press troubles last year, when she allowed a man convicted of fraud to negotiate a property deal for her.) But many of IDS’s fellow Tories, however, are not sympathetic. A recent party conference was highlighted by a huge show of non-support for IDS and a call for a change in leadership. Sir Patrick Cormack, the conservative MP for South Staffordshire, told ITV.com that the mood of the Blackpool conference toward Duncan Smith ranged from “nervous apprehension to seething discontent.” He is calling for a “confidence vote” on the party’s leader.
Sir Patrick said Mr. Duncan Smith had no hope of taking the party into a successful election campaign without their clear support.
He added that a vote of confidence would draw a line under the infighting and sniping that overshadowed the Tory party conference.
But Guardian editorialist Jackie Ashley says that such a vote could spell trouble for the Conservative Party.
[T]he venom the episode has provoked is truly dramatic, and goes far beyond another little Westminster fuss. The crumbling implosion of the Tories matters for the whole body politic. These people are beginning to make Labour during the 80s look like a smoothly efficient and friendly organisation. They are a complete shambles. …
Even if they get rid of IDS, which is still not definite, the damage done to the Tory family would be very hard for any new leader to repair, certainly before an election. Michael Howard is probably now their best choice, which tells you all you need to know. For MPs, however desperate, to oust the Tories’ first-ever democratically elected leader would cause profound bitterness. In local associations up and down the country they will be spitting with anger at the plotters. How could any future leader, associated with any of the circling factions, ask with a straight face for their loyalty ever again?
But for British progressives, this will not mean victory. In fact, Ashley predicts that in the long run, the Tory infighting may push Britain’s Labour and Liberal Democrat parties further to the right as they scramble to grab the support of disenchanted conservative voters.
The biggest opposition party is falling apart before our eyes, eaten up with despair and self-loathing. Is this not the historic chance for the government to press quickly ahead, redistributing wealth and reinvesting in our public services while the coast is clear? Might Tony Blair not even go for the euro while he has the chance? If the Liberal Democrats are poised to overtake the Conservatives as the main opposition, what’s to lose?
Alas, I fear it is not so simple. For a start, the polls show that the Tory position in the country is not nearly as bad as its position in Westminster suggests. In one recent poll they are actually five points ahead of Labour. It can safely be said that this is not because the voters are turning in their millions to the charismatic allure of Iain Duncan Smith. It is because middle England again feels grumpy about public services and increasingly mistrusts Tony Blair. Partly because of that, the Tories will not collapse, or go away.
Instead, the net effect of the Tory civil war is actually to move British politics further to the right. It may seem paradoxical, but it is happening everywhere you look. First, take the Tories themselves. The more desperate IDS is, the more he needs to appeal to the basest instincts of the party’s grassroots in order to survive – his words on immigration, crime and Europe last week were not the words of a man opening out to the rest of the country. Taking their cue, and remembering that it is ordinary party members who now choose the leader, his rivals will move right, not left, as they make their pitch to replace him.
Meanwhile, the details of the Tory policies unveiled in Blackpool, which are ferociously rightwing, have been completely smothered by the excited descriptions of the party’s infighting. So there has been little considered coverage of the proposed dismantling of the NHS (National Health Service), or the fantasy of sticking all asylum seekers on some remote island, or the hostility to a European constitution of any kind, which leads to the real possibility of us leaving the EU altogether. This massive agenda intended to demolish the post-1945 state and shift this country even closer to the American model has simply been taken as read. The time may come when we all regret this.
Next, the Liberal Democrats: as they turn their hungry eyes on their long list of Tory target seats, they are shifting to the right as well. Those prominent leftish Liberals, Simon Hughes and Matthew Taylor, have been elbowed aside to make room for free-market enthusiasts. A party that a few years ago saw itself as a potential partner in government for Labour is now trying on more conservative clothes. Yes, this is to do with electoral calculation as much as principle, but the effect will be the same.
Finally we come to the government itself. The real effect of Tory disarray is not to make the prime minister lean to the left, but to release him from any real pressure at all. He can give full rein to his own instincts. All those people who suggested he was in such trouble with the voters that he would have to stand aside for [Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown] must now shake their heads and shrug their shoulders.
He may not be loved by his party, or the voters, just now, but the Tory leadership mayhem is cementing Blair into Downing Street. He is under less scrutiny and pressure, not more.
In other words, whoever wins, the people will ultimately lose — and all because Betsy Duncan Smith did a little typing and filing for her spouse. Ah, politics.
originally published on Open Source Politics