Voices: Tory sleaze is back – it’s like the 1990s all over again

Even now, even after all the coverage and the revelations, I very much doubt that if you sidled up to someone in a pub, engaged them in friendly conversation and mentioned the name “Nadhim Zahawi” they’d have much idea who you’d be on about. They might well know vaguely that he’s that Tory politician who didn’t pay his taxes, or something.

If you asked them about Neil Parrish, and they could remember the full-frontal embarrassment he caused, he’d be “Tractor Porn Man”. As for Chris Pincher – whose misbehaviour, and the attempt to cover it up, actually finally brought Boris Johnson down – I fear he’d draw an almost complete blank (despite Johnson’s memorable quip, “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature”).

Owen Paterson, who’d still be an MP now if only he’d accepted a mild rebuke from the Commons, is another name that means little outside his old constituency in Shropshire. Dominic Cummings and Barnard Castle might be more familiar, as is Matt Hancock and Wallpapergate. Priti Patel's bullying, less so – but they are all also shameful chapters that have slowly but surely eroded confidence in the government, and in public life, however dimly recalled the particulars might be.

But we do all remember Partygate; we remember those images of the Queen grieving, masked and alone at the funeral of Prince Philip, following the social distancing guidelines while they were partying and fornicating away in Downing Street – and we won’t forget it.

It was fashionable for a time for Tories to try and gaslight the nation by saying it was all about “cake”, when it was really about loved ones dying alone; when it was about lying, hypocrisy and betrayal.

It was, indeed, about betrayal. It was Partygate that collapsed Johnson’s personal ratings, and destroyed any goodwill he might have enjoyed. There was a reason why his party got shot of him – he was becoming a liability, and understandably so.

The public may not be able to rattle off all, or even much, of the litany of sleaze that has overwhelmed the Conservatives over the last year or so. But they have formed a general image, and come to a general conclusion: that the Tories are irredeemably mired in sleaze once again.

Of course, the other political parties have people to be ashamed of – ex-Labour MP Jared O’Mara, for example, who is on trial for allegedly trying to claim £30,000 using falsified invoices, to pay for a cocaine habit. However, Labour and the SNP aren’t running the UK, which is the point. They can’t abuse power they don’t possess.

The Conservatives, it seems, are all too prone to doing so. The picture is of what the SNP leader in the Commons, Stephen Flynn woundingly called “a parcel of rogues” at Prime Minister’s Questions this week.

Seeing as it’s around Burns Night time now, it’s fitting to quote part of the Robert Burns poem where the phrase appears:

“The English steel we could disdain, Secure in valour’s station; But English gold has been our bane Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”

Memories of the 1990s and John Major’s floundering administration come inevitably to mind. Then, as now, it was an age of sleaze, when hardly a week would go by without some shocking scandal involving a Tory politician hitting the headlines.

From the death of Stephen Milligan, a Conservative MP found on the kitchen table at his west London home with his clothes on the floor, his head covered and an orange in his mouth in an auto-erotic adventure gone wrong; to the Tory backbenchers who took envelopes of cash from Mohamed al-Fayed in return for asking questions in the Commons (and not declared). Or the then-chancellor, Norman Lamont, who unwittingly rented out a London flat to a dominatrix named “Miss Whiplash”, and whose overdue credit card bills supposedly contained a mysterious reference to a purchase of a packet of Raffles cigarettes and a bottle of champagne.

Or the under-secretary of state for Scotland waving a pickaxe at an anti-motorway protester. Major himself had to sue for libel about untrue accusations of an affair (his accusers hit the wrong target), and his government basically slowly died under a pile-on of Eurosceptic plots and “three-in-bed romps” (possibly simultaneously – Conservatives are nothing if not good multi-taskers).

After he lost the 1997 election to Tony Blair by a landslide, Major pleaded there wasn’t much he could do about the bunch of randy, crooked clowns he was leading, and after 18 years in power the “elastic of democracy” had finally stretched too far. For the voters, it was “time for change”. All true enough – and Sunak might say something similar now.

However, Major, just like Sunak today, fashioned rods for his own back. Major said he wanted the country to return to some old-fashioned values – “back to basics”, a much-misquoted and misunderstood idea, but one that the media gleefully seized on to expose any and every act of adultery and corruption they could find. Similarly, when Sunak declared outside Downing Street that he would govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, he was bound to have those words thrown back at him when his self-imposed standards were not upheld.

There are differences too, though, between the 1990s and the last few years; most of which are unhelpful to Sunak.

Major presided over a growing economy, but faith in the Tories’ economic competence had been shattered by the ERM crisis and “Black Wednesday” in 1992. Today, the Tories’ financial reputation was wrecked by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s crazed dash for growth last September/October, but this time round the economy shows little sign of heading for a boom.

Sunak, unlike Major, was also caught up in a tax query over his wife’s non-dom status. And Major, though constantly distracted by party divisions on Europe, managed to keep the UK in the EU, and on its own terms: Sunak is actually a long-standing Eurosceptic himself, and has to face the fact that the Brexit he campaigned for doesn’t feel to the voters like it’s working very well.

Both fundamentally decent men, Major and Sunak also lived and live under the shadow of more charismatic, election-winning, blonde predecessors. More than that, there are parallel Thatcher and Johnson myths that plague the party – the “stab in the back” theory, and the constant itch to try and get them back.

For that reason too, neither Major nor Sunak were allowed to lead their party, and their appeals for unity and managerial pragmatism counted for little. Both Major and Sunak, and Johnson for that matter, have a habit of trying to hang on to damaged MPs and ministers for far too long. They should sack them as soon as there’s any trouble. And of course, there are further embarrassments to come – with the Commons privileges committee publicly grilling Johnson about misleading the Commons; the Covid public inquiry; and, perhaps, the inevitable fall of Zahawi.

Keir Starmer is obviously no Blair, but such is the impatience and increasing hatred towards the Tories that the plodding Starmer might yet outstrip Blair’s famous triumph in 1997. And like Major (and rather unfairly, at that) it is Sunak – not Johnson, Truss, Zahawi or any of the other rogues – who’ll have to carry the can.