A very guilty pleasure: Caroline Spelman’s nanny scandal

Even more exciting than the decade-old details of a fairly obscure MP’s childcare arrangements (and anyone who wants to argue that, in the general scheme of things, the chairmanship of the Conservative Party is, per se, a major claim to public recognition really needs to shut down the web-browser now and start getting out just that little bit more) is the rift that’s developed on the right-of-centre end of the blogosphere, over the past 48 hours, regarding the matter of Caroline Spelman MP: her probity, her culpability, the embattled cul-de-sac that is her short-term political future.

On one side of the rift, exemplifying Mrs Spelman’s defenders, is Iain Dale, who, despite hardly knowing her, is confident enough of her merits to pronounce her a Decent and Honest Woman. The basic line he takes is Voltaire’s durable tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner one: Mrs Spelman was under a lot of pressure, she meant no harm, and anyway she regularised her secretarial arrangements as soon as it was pointed out to her that it did rather look as if she was using public funds to subsidise her nanny’s salary. Well, Iain Dale has a famously honourable track-record when it comes to speaking up for troubled parliamentarians long after fair-weather friends have gone silent, so whatever else his defence of Mrs Spelman may be, it is hardly a surprise. Nor is it a surprise that some of the more self-consciously humane, temperate and tolerant Tories have broadly followed his lead.

On the other side of the rift we have — who else? — Guido, who has spent the past week working himself up into a frenzy of self-righteous indignation against a long list of MEPs against the obscurity of which the figure of Mrs Spelman looms like a largish colossus, his tone very much that of Robespierre on a bad day: his inquisitorial demands, faxed and emailed and flagged up unrelentingly, n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible. Against this background, it really didn’t take him long to make up his mind about the proprieties of the Spelman case — although perhaps his mood wasn’t helped by the fact that the scandal had surfaced elsewhere some hours before he’d had a chance to splash it himself. In any event, though, Guido’s fairly negative take on the story was by no means surprising, the only real suspense reposing in the exact degree of savage gleefulness with which Mrs Spelman’s eventual evisceration would be contemplated. And again, the more self-consciously savage, inflexible, incorruptible elements of the broader Right trailed along in his wake. Does Guido actually keep a wax cast of Peter Hain’s bloodied head on a stake at the far end of his desk? Perhaps, on reflection, it is better not to know.

Meanwhile, over at Conservative Home, where a mere few months ago the editors’ baying for the destruction of Derek Conway MP displayed so more zeal than charity, the editorial tone has been slightly muted. The fact that Mrs Spelman sits on the board of Tim Montgomerie’s Conservative Christian Forum — a precaution not taken by Mr Conway — may, for all one knows, count for something, as may the additional facts that she’s female, a bit of a moderniser, and generally seen as compliant with the whole Cameroonian project. It hardly matters, though, because the ConHome contributors, having learned how to do this stuff during previous scandals, have shown great resoluteness in taking sides, undeterred by patchy and partial information. Oh, the BBC received its ritual bashing, and occasionally someone remembered to mention how infinitely more venal and worthless Labour MPs are than even the most depraved Conservative. In general, though, most of the dialogue hinged on the degree of haste with which David Cameron ought to sack Mrs Spelman.

Or rather, while on one hand, it was accepted by some that even if Mrs Spelman had been mildly naughty, making a great fuss over mild naughtiness would be of no lasting benefit to the Conservative Party, there were plenty of others who saw the only possible response to these nanny allegations, indeed to any allegations, as instant and preemptory dismissal. Strange though it is to report, post the Conway affair, it has become an article of faith in some quarters that responding very quickly to the demands of the media is not only popular with the voters, but a sign of great strength and resoluteness as well. ‘We must be ruthless to win’, the catch-phrase runs — although why instant and unquestioning obedience to Michael Crick, as opposed to giving the benefit of the doubt to a long-serving party member, conjures up the adjective ‘ruthless’, remains less than entirely clear to me. ‘Supine’ might do instead — or would ‘suicidal’ be better?

And this, I suppose, is the sense in which the Spelman story only underscores, as the Conway story did before it, the essential weakness of David Cameron’s leadership, his instinctive willingness to take the media’s side against his own party, his conviction that some weird amalgam of rancour, contempt and a sort of detached and puzzled pity directed against the Conservative grassroots is the stuff out of which electoral success not only can but must be wrought.

Myth now enshrines Mr Cameron’s handling of the Conway scandal as marvellously resolute and, yes, ‘ruthless’. In fact, it was no such thing. As a succession of Conservative Home posts (here and here and here) makes all too clear, it took more than 24 hours for Mr Cameron to break with precedent and pull the plug on a long-serving, not ubiquitously popular but certainly not uniquely offensive MP, rather than allowing the Commons’ own Standards and Privileges Committee to handle the matter in their own, long-established way, acccompanied by a general pressure for increased transparency in the expenditure of public funds. (The way forward, I suspect, is simply to give MPs a flat sum of money and let them get on with spending it as they see fit, answerable always to their constituents for the consequences.) In his deliberations on the matter, Mr Cameron appears to have been much assisted, both by the mainstream media and, who knows, perhaps even by the right-of-centre blogosphere itself. In withdrawing the whip from the hapless Mr Conway, however, rather than simply condemning his distinctive take on family values and calling for tighter regulations henceforth — a sort of ‘go away and sin no more’ moment — Mr Cameron created a toxic precedent, the prime victims of which will inevitably be his own peers, MPs and MEPs.

Further, in his implication that Mr Conway’s main error lay in hiring his own relations — rather than in hiring people who seem to have done more or less nothing in return for their salaries and expenses — Mr Cameron was panicked into another wholly avoidable mistake. There are, after all, perfectly good reasons why an MP might genuinely find it expedient to work closely with his or her own spouse — an arrangement, incidentally, not unknown in the wider world, especially when it comes to small enterprises, for which ‘mom and pop businesses’ has long been a recognisable description — and plenty of husband-and-wife teams at Westminster that have shown themselves to be highly effective. By the same token, there are plenty of rather dubious reasons for placing upon the public payroll people wholly free of any immediate familial connection whatsoever. Mr Cameron’s knee-jerk response to media pressure, however, mandated that while the spouses and relatives employed by MPs had to be named (after a tactful few months had passed) as a matter of public record, family friends, unemployable children of local worthies, lovers and potential lovers, unworldly political apparatchiks in need of outdoor relief and, yes, even nannies with secretarial inclinations did not. And now, with lots of fingers suddenly pointed not at some ageing and awkward backbencher, but rather at one of Mr Cameron’s own inner circle, the implications of all these various decisions are now made unmissibly manifest. Mrs Spelman, who matters to me not much one way or the other, may well be the next short-term victim. In the long run, however, the real victim is the Conservative Party, and that matters to me rather more.

The attractions of the Spelman story, and indeed those like it, aren’t hard to identify. First and foremost, witch-hunts are fun, at least for those in no danger of being mistaken for witches. (As we all know, journalists are famous for never cheating on their expenses — well, post-Wapping, fewer and fewer of them have expense accounts anyway — while quite of few of the Right’s best bloggers have had so little formal responsibility in their careers as to be splendidly certain they would never ever, under any circumstances, have overstepped any significant mark.) Similarly, one of the charms of this particular mire of ‘sleaze’ is that potentially any MP might, at any point, be found up to his or her neck in squelchy financial malfeasance, since the rules of the game, as set out by our party’s leader, allow us to impose the standards of 2008, with gleeful anachronism, on any point stretching back across the historical past, very much including decades in which standards of practice, if not actual rules, were very different. And this, of course, reduces the whole operation to gossip, speculation and the odd imaginative projection dressed up as fact, which is perhaps the most fun of all. Here is a chance, at least for those with long memories, scores to settle and antipathies to indulge, to have quite a lot of free-form fun indeed. Possibly the most fascinating moment of the Spelman story will come when we finally learn, some day, how it all came about — who set the ball rolling, and who urged it along on its way, before it came to a fortuitous stop right at Mr Crick’s waiting feet.

Whether any of this resonates, or even ought to resonate, with the wider public is, obviously, an entirely seperate issue, albeit one on which all right-thinking people take a strikingly similar line. It is taken as read that sleeze, in the sense of politicians behaving badly, bothers the public enormously — that they care a lot about it, and vote accordingly.

Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t entirely agree with this. Most people, I imagine, were they to be asked a question along the lines of ‘is it okay for elected officials to cheat, lie and scam enormous sums of money off the state?’ would, presumably, reply in broadly negative terms. But would those same people be surprised to learn that this was exactly what at least some elected officials do, at least some of the time, unless fairly aggressive measures are taken to keep them in line? The Westminster Village may experience the odd frisson, agreeable or not, at discovering how very wicked some of the neighbours may have have been — but as for the rest of the nation, they may well be more clear-sighted and illusionless on this score than we imagine. Many people, for instance, will have had some experience of the temptations thrown up by expense accounts, or travel allowances, or — who knows — perhaps even state-funded benefits. They may thus realise that if there’s money there for the asking, well, not everyone can resist the impulse to ask. And, quite shockingly, they may not assume, as some in the Westminster village still do, that politicians are automatically superior, in terms of self-control and moral probity, to their apolitical kin. (I do accept that the electorate don’t much like hypocrisy — but it’s easy enough to avoid that particular pitfall by steering clear of too much ‘clean hands’, ‘back to basics’, sanctimonious and otherwise unappealing rhetoric.)

No, as suggested above, the moral of this story reposes, more than anywhere else, in Mr Cameron’s weakness dressed up as ruthlessness — a state of affairs only temporarily occluded by the even greater ineptitude, charmlessness and culpable bad luck afflicting Gordon Brown.

For the moment, the party leadership seems to be standing by Mrs Spelman. CCHQ has, apparently, been distributing her nanny’s clarification, and generally promoting the version of the story in which Mrs Spelman, a fragile young woman transformed suddenly, by malign chance and through no fault of her own, into an MP, struggled desperately to keep her little family together while also carrying out the near-impossible duties of her high and weighty office, and hence should be forgiven for making a lot of mistakes, at least up until the point the wise old whips set her right. (Working mums everywhere may be rolling their eyes a bit at this narrative of superwoman-as-victim, just as their stay-at-home sisters pause briefly to wonder, in bleary-eyed defiance of all political correctness, whether a woman lucky enough to have three young children, the youngest only aged two and the eldest aged seven, ought really to be attempting a full-time job full stop.) Some in the right-of-centre blogosphere have decided that the theme of Michael Crick’s deficiencies is a rich seam inviting further excavation, all of which is not quite the same thing as saying he’d got his story wrong in this particular case. And some will call, sanely and soberly, for the normal procedures to run their course. Others, though, will doubtless feel that until there’s been a resignation, a sacking, some sort of human sacrifice to appease the angry inchoate forces of democratic accountability — or perhaps only media self-esteem, because it becomes harder every day for non-specialists to tell the difference — the baying and barking and blogging must continue unabated. One imagines this is hard for Mrs Spelman to take. It may not be wonderful for our political institutions, either.

For there’s a final point to be made, briefly and simply, about all of this — about Mr Conway, Mrs Spelman, the flamboyant oddly-dressed sons and excessively talkative nannies, the MEPs of whom no one’s heard before and whom we’ll all so quickly forget, those twice-told tales of over-complex arrangements regarding second homes and second mortages and, well, whatever distressing enormities Guido & Co unearths for general delectation next week. Yes, at some level it’s all unfortunate. It would be better if our elected representatives all remained permanently above suspicion of venality, bad judgement or flourishing naivete. The logic of constitutional democracy does rather tend to suggest, however, that in fact they are likely to be cut from the same flawed cloth as the rest of us. And such flaws are, famously, prominent amongst the reasons why the happiest nations tend to be those in which the power of the state, and the privileges of those who exercise that power, are circumscribed very tightly indeed.

But it may also be a reason to respond to the news of each new political scandal (a guilty pleasure, to be sure, the retailing and reception of that news, if often a very genuine one) in a way that finds a place for pragmatism and human sympathy, alongside the necessary critical scrutiny and judgement — all existing in the shadow of that all-important item of mental furniture, a functional sense of proportion. For the real scandal, after all, lies not so much in the sums that unlucky MPs might be found to have paid to sons or nannies — an undetectable drop, after all, in the context of those boundless lapping seas of incontinent public expenditure — but, rather, in the increasingly greedy, distended, malfunctioning nation state that far too many MPs of every possible party have allowed to develop over the past few ‘progressive’ centuries.

Ruthlessness? It’s needed here, more than anywhere, both on the part of politicians and their electorates. The genuine anger that so often erupts in discussions, public and private, about the political class and its failings — the sanguinary fury so evident in many of those blog posts and comment threads — may actually find its origins in something rather more deep and serious than mere impatience with the foibles of individual politicians. And that anger may be growing. Sadly, however, we live in a world where the Conservative Party vows to match Labour’s spending plans, politicians vie with each other to express their fawning adoration for our marvellous welfare state, outposts of our financial sector are stealthily nationalised, we are stuck with a ruinously expensive Olympic Games that no one seems to want but that are all the same apparently unstoppable, our unschooled and lawless underclass grows both in number and alienation — and where, in the right-of-centre blogosphere at any rate, slightly too many of the citizens consume with uncritical enjoyment not only the bread, but also the bloodthirsty circuses, that the media, egged on by the more complicit sort of politician, so generously provide for them.

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