Have we really got a new sex pest scandal with a Tory MP called Pincher? You couldn’t make it up. My favourite up to now was in the last Parliament, with gallivanting Charlie Elphicke apparently saying: “I’m a naughty Tory”. It’s not that the Tories are particularly awful, it’s just that right now we have more Tory MPs in the Commons than all the others put together.
Look up and you’ll find the SNP’s parliamentary leader Ian Blackford accused of protecting another SNP MP facing similar claims, while in 2021 Andrew Marr reminded Keir Starmer that seven Labour MPs or former MPs had received a jail sentence within the previous 10 years for offences ranging from illegitimate claims for parliamentary expenses to lying to police and threatening a woman with an acid attack.
I can’t help thinking that in the 1970s and 80s we had a better class of scandal. The high-profile miscreants were at least good-looking – cabinet ministers John Stonehouse (Labour) who in 1974 unsuccessfully faked his own death to run off with his girlfriend, and Cecil Parkinson (Conservative) in 1983 whose mistress produced both a baby and a book, were both strikingly handsome. No five o’clock stubble or torn jeans for them. But then Mrs Thatcher had made it quite clear she disapproved of beards.
The worst sex pest I came across was a minor aristocrat who owned a castle, though he was no looker. Sir Nicholas Fairbairn was a flamboyant Scottish Tory MP and solicitor general for Scotland but he was also an alcoholic and an eccentric. He was the only MP to use the parliamentary snuff box and carried a tiny silver (working) pistol on his watch chain. He was cited in a divorce case as the co-respondent and another lady tried to take her own life outside his flat for love of him. He stood behind me at the crowded entrance of the Chamber one evening as we waited to vote, and tried goosing me. Big mistake. I wore stilettos then, so I took a small step backwards and ground the heel into his foot. He couldn’t yell or shove me away, of course, but his agonised groan was a delight to hear.
On one occasion I found him ahead of me in the queue at our self-service café and heard him making lewdly suggestive remarks to the middle-aged ladies serving us our tea and buns. When it was my turn I apologised to them. To my astonishment they giggled and blushed, saying: “It’s only Sir Nicholas.” These days he’d have been frog-marched out of the place.
When he died in 1995 a woman turned up on his castle doorstep with a child she said was his. To her great credit Lady Fairbairn settled some money on the boy. Then she sold the castle and moved back to civilisation. The SNP subsequently won the seat.
The nature of scandal can change depending on the proclivities of the Prime Minister, as we see now (“I had too much to drink” is not, actually, an excuse for wandering hands, chaps). Though one glare from Margaret Thatcher could stop an elephant, she changed some rules; as a woman married to a divorced man she knew relationships could be messy, so unlike her predecessors she brought multiple-married men into her Cabinet including Nigel Lawson, Norman Fowler and Douglas Hurd.
I worked for a while for her guru Sir Keith Joseph, a lovely (twice-married) man who had a lady friend who lived in New York. Concorde proved a boon, enabling him to go and visit her for the weekend; he would land at Heathrow at 8am on Mondays and come straight into meetings at the Department of Education, bright-eyed and very bushy-tailed.
There were moments of high camp which I still recall with misty-eyed pleasure. Back in the days of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, the Government decided to send a warning booklet to 23 million households (on the reasonable grounds that anybody could get infected with HIV; it was not just a ‘gay plague’). Nobody but us knew that the DHSS Ministerial team trying to select appropriate warnings for the sexual adventures of the nation included two ministers who were sleeping with each other. It was the Minister of State for Social Security (Mr Major) who suggested that the word “promiscuous” might mean different things to different people. So we went round the table, asking everyone what they thought it meant, with John and me desperately trying to keep straight faces.
That’s why it was weird when, as Prime Minister, John started making speeches to the 1993 party conference about “back to basics” and “family values.” That was really offering a hostage to fortune, and so it proved. Hacks sharpened their pencils and flicked back through their notebooks. Within weeks no fewer than 11 ministers had resigned on revelations about extra-marital affairs of various flavours. One chap, Tony Marlow, never denied that he was so keen on family values that he had two families, one for the week and the other for the weekend, with 11 children between them.
I was a candidate for the European elections at the time in Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes. On my return from the conference I’d expected an enthusiastic response, only to find that constituents were dismayed by the Prime Minister’s call to virtue. “You only seem keen on people who fit that narrow template,” one said. “Lots of us here don’t. Why do you think we are living in Milton Keynes?” Inevitably we lost that seat, and in the subsequent general election had a real spanking, which we deserved.
We live in more censorious times now, as we demand higher standards from those in public life than we exercise ourselves. Social media means we are less adept at keeping secrets. We even have the Chancellor putting taxpayers’ money into Killing Kittens, whose raison d’être is running sex parties. So perhaps what lonely MPs far from home really need is some discreet form of Tinder (or Grindr) where they could make a pass safely and maybe get a Swipe Right. That’d really help the Tories, wouldn’t it?