Political notes

The personal attack is an important part of the political armoury. But will new freedom of information laws take things too far?
May 3, 2009

When all MPs expenses are finally published this summer, the most embarrassing claims will almost certainly have been leaked already—the pornography bills, the home improvements and the bath plugs. One item seems unlikely to be listed by any MP, however: a sleeping bag. Yet I know of several MPs and at least one cabinet minister who all keep one in their desks, to catch a few hours of sleep during late votes.

Given recent coverage of the sex lives of parliamentarians, including allegations that one Labour politician conducted an affair in his House of Commons office, it may come as a surprise that others sleep alone, under their desks. Changes to sitting hours mean fewer votes nowadays drag on into the night. Even so, it is not an easy life: late nights two or three evenings a week, separation from family, tedious constituency work that you are obliged to pretend to enjoy and incessant media scrutiny. This is not to say that parliamentarians are noble truth seekers, maligned by an ungrateful media. But they are only human.

This humanity is typically revealed through individual frailties, those moments when the behaviour of the political classes threatens to swamp politics itself, and issues of the day become commercial breaks in the soap opera of SW1. Coverage of Jacqui Smith's husband's lewd movie habit ran for the best part of a week, as did the dirty tricks email campaign orchestrated by Damian McBride. In between, the G20's attempts to fix up an ailing global economy almost seemed a diversion and Barack Obama himself a modest interlude between porn and poison.

But let's not be too pompous about this. Because human beings relate more strongly to people than ideas, a focus on personalities—and their clashes—is inevitable in politics, and personal attack an important part of the political armoury. It has been ever thus: Roman politician Cicero described his rival Clodius as an "infatuate lunatic." (Although not without good cause, given that Clodius had knocked down his house.)

Political journalists learn quickly that dramatis personae can bring worthy, policy-based stories to life. For much of the last decade a staple opening paragraph for any lobby correspondent could read: "The struggle at the heart of government between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair took a fresh turn yesterday when [add reference to foundation hospitals, incapacity benefit or local government financing]." Conflict between the principals wasn't even necessary, as when: "Gordon Brown's reputation for prudence took today a battering… "; or "Tony Blair's crusade to reform Britain's public services suffered a setback…"

Journalists stand accused of personalising politics. In truth they respond to the preference of readers for stories about people, not abstract ideas. In turn, the heart of the story about the emails shared by McBride, Derek Draper and Charlie Whelan is the light it casts on Gordon Brown, and the culture of his government. Brown insists McBride's actions were an unrepresentative aberration, and one for which McBride paid with his job. Westminster insiders know that Brown can be a thoughtful figure, but that he also has a dark side. The emails proved McBride and Whelan were not outposts of Brown's operation, but at its heart. Through them the public have now also seen the balance of Brown's modus operandi: by his spinners shall we know him.

The story's longevity surprised even those acclimatised to the rough-and-tumble of Westminster, dragging on not just because both Tories and disgruntled Blairites egged it on, but also because the media themselves were implicated. Spinners need someone to spin: all those "smears" did not appear by accident, but were inserted by the same journalists who, in turn, reported McBride's fall. Plans for a new gossip website, Red Rag, unsettled lobby correspondents in particular, given their historic role as the middlemen of attack politics.

The row also highlighted the changing nature of Britain's media, with a shift away from the closed world of the political lobby and lunchtime briefings for print journalists, towards 24-hour news and a lightly regulated blogosphere. Politicians now feel they live in something close to a 21st-century panopticon, hemmed in by the media on one side, and new freedom of information laws, like those about to be introduced for MPs expenses, on the other. "FOI has had the unintended consequence of exposing us all as individuals, rather than just our work as ministers," says one senior Labour figure.

The benefits of these trends are clear, especially for accountability. The costs are becoming more so. Releasing public information should increase trust in politics. But while sunlight is a good disinfectant, it also shows up even the smallest smear on the windows. Politicians are rightly being forced to behave better. But they are also finding it harder to govern.