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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 14:53 GMT
The sleaze that won't go away

Neil Hamilton came to epitomise Tory sleaze

By political correspondent Nick Assinder

If there was one word that came to epitomise the last Tory government it was "sleaze".

It covered a variety of sins - from sexual misbehaviour to cash stuffed in brown envelopes.

Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken - still in prison for perjury - were the biggest heads to roll.

And the Hamilton/Al-Fayed case has only served to remind people just how murky things became in the Major years.

There was a time when it appeared every day would bring a new scandal - from David Mellor's adulterous antics to Aitken's courtroom lies.

Politicians had always been viewed with suspicion by voters and the tidal wave of sleaze which eventually engulfed the last government only reinforced the popular perception of the profession.

The great irony was that it was Tory prime minister John Major who stoked it all up with his ill-judged "back to basics" crusade.

Mr Major never intended his famous conference speech to be about personal behaviour.

He was trying to make a point about what he believed were the basic political values which all British citizens could accept.

It was his spin doctors who later "interpreted" the speech for the press and added the moral crusade element.

Dig the dirt

But Mr Major was stuck with it - and it opened up the flood gates. It gave the green light to the media to dig up whatever dirt they could on ministers' private lives.

Thanks to the Major speech, they had become fair game. And it astonished even the hard nosed hacks of just how corrupt politics had become.

John Major; back to basics
Even as Mr Major was making the speech, the then transport minister Steven Norris was hitting the headlines for his string of mistresses.

But there were even nastier skeletons in the cupboard, and they all came rattling out.

When William Hague was elected Tory leader he pledged to put the past behind him and insisted he would come down hard on anyone whose personal behaviour risked embarrassing the party.

The post-Major Tory party would be squeaky clean and unimpeachable, he insisted. But he could not re-write the past and the skeletons kept emerging.

First there was Jeffrey Archer whose past life came back to ruin him and massively embarrass the Tories.

Then, in what must be the supreme irony, Steve Norris' personal antics once again became an issue.

Labour has had its own problems, of course. They have had Bernie Ecclestone, Peter Mandelson, Geoffrey Robinson and Ron Davies. Sleaze, it appears, is a two way street.

And the Hamilton/Al-Fayed case has only served to reinforce a popular view of politicians that will be hard to wipe clean.

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