This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 25, 1999
UK Labour Government Scandals
Not even the newly acquired suntan could disguise Tony Blair's discomfort. The British prime minister sat tight-lipped and grim-faced on his first day back in the House of Commons last week following a Christmas vacation break in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. Bad enough were the gleeful taunts hurled from across the floor, led by Conservative Party chief William Hague. Worse, however, were the angry charges levelled by the backbench members of Blair's own Labour Party, 200 of whom gathered in a private session to complain bitterly about the political crisis provoked by the feuds and foibles of leading cabinet members. The Prime Minister joined the chorus, glumly remarking on television that Britain might well be "heading for the same type of political agenda as they've now got in the United States, where everything is like an extension of Hollywood, dominated by scandal, gossip and trivia."
Scandal has certainly engulfed British politics for the past month, ever since financial misdeeds prompted the dual resignations on Dec. 23 of Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson and Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson. When the two ministers fell, it set in motion a series of public relations disasters so glaring that Britain's media have dubbed the affair "Black Christmas." It led directly to the resignation of Chancellor Gordon Brown's press officer, Charles Whelan, revealed the full extent of factional feuding within the upper reaches of the Labour Party and revived comment about the rivalry between Blair and Brown that dates back to their bitter fight in 1994 for the Labour leadership. At the same time as this was unfolding, another key member of Blair's cabinet - Foreign Secretary Robin Cook - was badly damaged by the publication of excerpts from his ex-wife's autobiography, which portrays him as an embittered, philandering drunk.
The scandal involving Mandelson and Robinson is likely to have the most lasting effect. Mandelson was Blair's closest adviser in the cabinet. The grandson of Labour legend Herbert Morrison, he orchestrated the party's electoral victory in 1997 and is widely regarded as a key architect of the effort to shift Labour from the left wing of British politics towards the moderate centre. He was forced to resign when newspapers revealed he had failed to disclose a loan of nearly $1 million given him by millionaire Robinson to purchase a home in London's trendy Notting Hill district. At the time of the resignation, Mandelson's department was investigating Robinson's financial affairs. "It was not something they should have done," Blair acknowledged on his return from holidays last week. "It was a foolish error of judgment and they have paid a heavy price for it."
Almost as heavy as the Labour party itself, which for the first time since its election in May, 1997, dropped below a 50 per cent approval rating. "The government's long honeymoon may be coming to an end," said Roger Mortimer of the London-based pollsters, Market Opinion and Research International. The problem is not so much the exit of Mandelson and Robinson as the still unexplained intrigue that resulted in their downfall. Mandelson's aides blamed the leak about the undisclosed loan on Charlie Whelan, Chancellor Brown's flamboyant press officer. Whelan denied the charge but stepped down anyway to take a lucrative job as a television commentator. The allegations of his involvement, however, provided a measure of the unseen but powerful rivalries that remain within Blair's cabinet.
Foreign Secretary Cook is another central player, even if his current woes have more to do with his turbulent private life than his political career. In a now-celebrated incident, his 28-year marriage to his former wife - hematologist Dr. Margaret Cook - ended at Heathrow Airport in 1997 as the two were preparing to leave for a vacation. Informed by Blair's aides in a cell-phone call that British newspapers were about to reveal his affair with his secretary, Cook turned to his wife. "I'm afraid there won't be any holiday, Margaret," he said as he filled her in. "I think we should part." After their divorce, he married his secretary, Gaynor Regan. Last week, Margaret extracted her revenge in an autobigraphy entitled A Slight and Delicate Creature.
The book, serialized in the Sunday Times, paints Cook as a self-centred, arrogant, political opportunist who confessed to carrying on six adulterous relationships over the years, as well as battling a serious drinking problem. "I once found him flat out on the dining-room floor with a brandy bottle," writes Dr. Cook. She, too, adds fuel to the speculation about cabinet dissension by reporting that her ex-husband loathes Brown, dislikes Mandelson and felt Blair had "sold Labour's soul to the devil" to get elected.
For Blair's embattled government, the release of Dr. Cook's autobiography could not have occurred at a worse moment. But whether the current string of scandals will have any enduring political impact remains doubtful. "The government has been bruised," conceded MORI pollster Mortimer, "but at the same time it easily enjoys the highest approval ratings of any mid-term government since the Second World War. As for Blair himself, he does not seem to have been affected at all. The Prime Minister's approval ratings have never dropped below 60 per cent." The honeymoon may be over, but Britain's voters, at least, still have a strong marriage with Tony Blair's government.
Maclean's January 25, 1999