Sunday 23 October 2016

Bonkers... a very British scandal

It was an old-school tabloid sting that caught Lord Coke with his pants down

Joe O'Shea

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

Sun on Sunday's major scalp: Lord Sewel
Sun on Sunday's major scalp: Lord Sewel

It's 'A Very British Sex-Scandal' - a fruity-voiced peer of the realm, some light cross-dressing, prostitutes, class-A drugs and the popular press out for blood. The Sun on Sunday can claim its first big scalp, using the kind of old-school, hidden-camera stunt which had been the trademark of its previous incarnation, The News of the World.

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And with disgraced peer Lord Sewel (eventually) apologising and resigning from the House of Lords - to avoid "damaging an institution I hold dear" - the scandal has reached its expected conclusion.

There is still the little matter of the police investigation (Lord Sewel's grace-and-favour London apartment was searched by serious crime detectives some 24-hours after the story broke).

But for connoisseurs of the classic 'British Sex Scandal', the startling picture of a 69-year-old peer of the realm in orange bra and woman's leather coat on the front of The Sun recalled some of the greats of the past.

In the US, political scandals can take in sex and drugs, but mostly tend to be based around corruption, cheating and lies.

In Ireland, we don't really do political sex scandals. Possibly because of our traditionally conservative attitudes to sex or because our politicians, for whatever other faults they have, are nowhere near as frisky as those in England or France.

British politicians, and especially those with an upper-class, private-school background, seem prone to a very specific type of vice, usually involving dressing up in women's clothing, illicit substances, leather and prostitutes.

The first great sex scandal of the post-war era in Britain, the Profumo Affair in 1963, set the template for those that followed. It featured an exotic cast - Tory minister John Profumo, call-girls Mandy Rice Davis and Christine Keeler, a Russian spy and a notorious London drug-dealer - all linked by high-class sex parties in the more fashionable parts of London and the Home Counties.

Profumo, the then secretary of state for war, had an affair with Keeler which only came to light following a strange series of events involving a drug-dealer called Johnny Edgecombe (another of Keeler's boyfriends) and a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy who had also been sharing Keeler's bed.

In the end, Profumo was forced to resign because he had lied to the House of Commons about having any improper connection to Keeler - his "I did not have sex with that woman" moment.

In the 1990s, British PM John Major saw his 'Back to Basics' campaign spectacularly derailed by a string of lurid and increasingly bizarre sex scandals involving Tory MPs.

Major's call for higher standards followed the resignation of his culture minister David Mellor, brought down by a classic kiss 'n' tell story in The Sun. Mellor's mistress, Antonia de Sancha, provided lurid details of their sexual escapades, including the revelation that the married politicians liked to wear his Chelsea FC jersey while playing away. It was only recently, thanks to the Leveson Enquiry into newspaper behaviour, that we found out this juicy detail had been entirely concocted (to add a bit of spice to the story) by the now disgraced publicist Max Clifford.

Major's campaign, a call for a return to "good old-fashioned values", was almost farcically compromised by a string of ever more lurid sex and corruption scandals.

It seemed that the more Major talked of "family values", the more Tory MPs were caught with their pants down.

One of the most bizarre was the death of Tory MP Stephen Milligan in February 1994. Milligan was found dead in his flat in London, naked except for women's underwear, with an electrical flex wrapped around his neck, a bin-bag over his head and a segment of orange in his mouth. The verdict was that he had accidentally strangled himself while attempting auto-asphyxiation.

In the months that followed, a string of high-profile Tories fell victim to scandals. Minister Johnathan Aitken tried to sue The Guardian newspaper over a claim he had procured prostitutes (and bribes) for Arab businessmen. He lost and went to prison for perjury.

MPs Piers Merchant, Hartley Booth and Jeremy Hayes all saw their political careers end thanks to revelations about improper conduct (in the case of Hayes, with a man who was under the then age of consent for homosexual relations).

But it wasn't just Tories Behaving Badly in the 1990s, Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown was caught out having an extra-marital affair in 1992, leading to the memorable Sun front-page headline: "It's Paddy Pantsdown!" (even Ashdown had to admit, years later, that the headline was "dreadful, but brilliant").

There have been political sex-scandals since the glory days of the 1990s, but few have captured the British public's imagination in the way they used to.

Scandal and outrage these days tend to play around politicians on the fiddle (such as those who claimed for everything from porn films to floating Duck Houses in the expenses scandal). It fell to the hapless Lord Sewel - and The soaraway Sun - to revive the long, anything-but-proud tradition of the Bonking British Politician.

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