Profumo was saved by scandal from a much worse fate
The admiring comments which attended John Profumo’s passing would have inspired hope, for the moment when their time comes, among the Fallen Men of more recent years, such as David Mellor, Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett. Mr Profumo was not an especially important politician. Had he not chanced on Miss Keeler on that fateful afternoon by the Cliveden swimming pool, he would never have got the praise that he won in death.
He would have gone on to perhaps one more Cabinet office. Then to the backbenches in a reshuffle to make way for new blood; standing down from his constituency at the next general election; then perhaps the Lords; some admired, unpartisan speeches therein; the steady approach of old age; death; appreciative but not long obituaries; a jolly memorial service — that would have been it. As it was, obituarists, columnists and today’s politicians, including the Prime Minister, turned him into the 20th century’s noblest penitent. Profumo would be remembered for having made one great mistake, Mr Blair said. Most Cabinet ministers are remembered, if at all, for many.
Today’s Fallen Men have a better time than was available to Mr Profumo, atoning away down at Toynbee Hall. The Mellor, Mandelson and Blunkett obituaries, let us hope, are long distant. But they will show that disgrace, post-Profumo, does not necessitate Profumoesque atonement.
‘Mellor selflessly devoted the rest of his life to working on behalf of needy City corporations and serving as opera critic of the Mail on Sunday. Without complaint, he would attend Covent Garden first nights no matter how incomprehensible the modernist productions. Without rancour, after the first act, he would share his champagne with merchant bankers to alleviate their boredom and in the hope that they might be able to sleep peacefully through the second.
‘If necessary, he would tell them the opera’s story, since few had the background to read it in the programme. “Bit gloomy, isn’t it, David?” they would remark. “Don’t worry,” he would reassure them, “you’ll be at dinner in the Savoy Grill in a couple of hours.” To which they would reply, “Christ! As long as that.” David Mellor felt their pain. He had sat through Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Ervartung himself. He knew that it was his duty to help such people to sur vive the experience and emerge the stronger. The record companies attacked him with free CDs. But he stood firm. He simply accepted them. He never declined either a peerage or a knighthood. Had they been offered, he would have felt it his duty to accept.’ Should Mr Mandelson predecease him, Mr Blair would be particularly eloquent: ‘Peter Mandelson was a man who made one great mistake. He trusted me. Twice I had to let him go. That was only because not enough people liked him. Without complaint, he went on to do social work in Brussels. There he had to live on a diet made up almost entirely of thick sauces. It was either that or moules marinières and chips. Remember: this was the era before nouvelle cuisine reached Belgium. Portions were huge. Lunch with one fonctionnaire was followed within hours by dinner with another. No wonder he’s no longer with us.
‘But he was eating for Britain. The alternative would have been to offer to negotiate with, for example, a German trade minister over the sort of muesli-based, full-fitness breakfast that Peter had known in London. That could have led to war. Peter always felt that we had had enough wars with the Germans. He thought that another would be a distraction from his war with Gordon Brown. Peter never mentioned the scandals which destroyed his ministerial career, except to blame them on the media and the Brownites. He suffered in silence, except off the record.’ All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell said — except in the obituaries of those that end in scandal.
Mr Cameron is only doing what plenty of other Conservative leaders did. He is ‘educating’ his party. He is teaching them that they cannot get back by being right-wing. Thus do we read all the time. Historically, the precise opposite is true; the Conservatives have only ever got back by being right-wing. When this opinion is ventured around Conservative dinner tables, there is minor uproar, since so long as he looks as if he is going up in the polls we are all Cameroons now.
What about Disraeli? What about the Tory opposition in the 1940s ‘accepting’ Labour’s welfare state? Didn’t Rab draft something called the ‘industrial charter’ which said that the Tories no longer liked mass unemployment and poverty?
The theory about Disraeli derives from his abandoning the Conservative opposition to extending the franchise to skilled workers in the 1860s, and to his government’s subsequent social legislation in the 1870s. But neither had anything to do with his one general election victory, in 1874. Then he campaigned from the Right, embracing imperialism and denouncing Gladstone for pursuing a ‘soft’ foreign policy. His advocacy of social legislation might have helped him, though there is no evidence of it. But in those days the Tories were more associated with such than were the free-market Gladstonians, so the voters might have taken it for granted.
Churchill overcame Labour’s 1945 landslide at two successive general elections, in 1950 and 1951. One would be hard put to find much emphasis on the ‘industrial charter’ in either campaign, especially in the most important part of it: Churchill’s speeches. Instead he emphasised the dangers of ‘socialism’. In 1951, with a Disraelian foreign policy touch, he denounced the Labour government for weakness towards the Iranian demagogue Dr Mosaddeq. There is an echo here for today. But Mr Cameron has said nothing of what we should do about Iranian nuclear weapons.
The next time the Tories returned to power from opposition was in 1970. Then, Heath’s manifesto was more ‘free market’ than Mrs Thatcher’s was in 1979. Her bringing the Tories back to office in that year, however, owed nothing to her proclaiming centrism. The Soviets had already denounced her as the ‘Iron Lady’.
It is irrelevant that various Conservative governments moved to the centre and left when in office, as Macmillan’s did after his 1959 landslide and Heath’s did as a result of unemployment in 1972. The point is that that was not how they won office in the first place. The point being made here is about tactics in opposition, not office. Doubtless the Cameroons want to move left. History suggests that they will have to move rightwards in opposition in order to have the opportunity to move leftwards in office.