Sunday, 21 March 2010

Scandal Ahoy!

This morning I woke up to the news that former ministers Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers have been secretly filmed offering 'Cash for Influence' as the BBC has dubbed it. Very quickly Labour ministers leaped in to attack the former ministers, although both deny any wrongdoing.

It is relatively easy for Labour ministers to attack the pair, as both are standing down at the election. Both Hewitt and Byers have had somewhat undignified parliamentary careers, with both implicated in the expenses scandal. Hewitt was also involved in January's 'attempted coup' against Gordon Brown whereas Byers' ministerial time was beset by accusations of lying, multiple gaffes and standing by an assistant who referred to 9/11 as a "good day to bury bad news". Both were also Blairites, putting them somewhat at odds with the current leadership. So here we have two former ministers, who are probably not too popular with their colleagues as is, who have been accused of wrongdoing after careers of accusations of wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, Labour ministers have distanced themselves rapidly from Byers and Hewitt.

Of course the Conservatives have been quick to stick the knife into Labour as well. This morning Justine Greening, Tory Shadow Communities and Local Government minister cheerfully lambasted the Labour Party on the Andrew Marr show. The Conservative desire is clear: link this scandal to the 'cash for peerages' and expenses scandals and create a narrative of a Labour administration that is intrinsically corrupt. You can hardly blame the Tories for this, as it is exactly what Labour did in the run-up to 1997.

However both are running a gambit. While Byers and Hewitt appear to be isolated cases right now, the press love nothing more than a story that keeps on giving, and they will be looking for precisely this behaviour in other MPs. If they find it amongst other Labour members, it may well sink the party's chances of winning re-election, which is now a mere six and a half weeks away, if they find the behaviour amongst the Tories they will be accused of hypocrisy. When asked if the Conservatives had done something similar Greening was unable to deny it. It wasn't because she was covering up for other Tories however, it is simply, and that, truthfully, Greening probably doesn't actually know, and a denial would play extremely badly if it was found that she was wrong.

However in all likelihood the scandal will peter out over the next week. It will probably affect Labour's poll ratings by maybe a couple of points, but it will not have long-term effects. The truth is that anyone who is voting Labour and has not been put off by the expenses scandal, cash for peerages and so on is unlikely to be put off by this, and what's more the Conservatives will have trouble claiming to be whiter than white considering their own misdemeanours in the expenses scandal. Amongst older voters the scandal may also bring up memories of the 'cash-for-questions' affair of the mid-1990s which this scandal certainly resembles. All in all, the scandal probably won't affect the election too much despite its proximity to the election, therefore, unless further revelations come about and the behaviour of Byers and Hewitt turns out to be far more institutionalised that currently believed. All in all this will certainly not help Labour but it is not disastrous.


  1. It's all a bit sad to see that there isn't a choice between good and bad or well, ideally, between different competent and 'clean' people. It's more like choosing the least worse ... as we seem to have resigned ourselves with the idea that whatever we do, our elected representatives will steal from us anyway (but the idealist will go and hide in a corner now!).

  2. Alas, the reality is, that in a two party system, 'the least bad' is usually what one has to vote for. Frankly any large institution suffers from corruption, no matter what it is. If the corruption is isolated to just a few bad eggs it is understandable and life goes on. If the corruption is institutionalised, as in the expenses scandal, or in a country like Italy, then clearly there is a severe problem at all.

    As it is it appears that accusations of involvement in the affair have now spread to Geoff Hoon, a man even less popular amongst Labour MPs than these two, and Lord Adonis. The accusations against Lord Adonis are potentially more damaging as he is currently a government minister. This is despite the fact that his implication is more dubuous due to the lack of direct evidence and Byers statement that he never actually lobbied any government ministes.

  3. I note today's YouGov poll:

    YouGov/Sun: Con 36% (-2%), Lab 32% (+1%), LD 20% (+1%)

    Doesn't look like this scandal has much traction so far. Though things may of course change depending on what direction the story heads.