LONDON -- Britain's tabloid journalists have gorged themselves to bursting.
With six Westminster sex scandals in as many weeks, few can remember a banquet of political improprieties quite like it.
It started back in January with Timothy Yeo, the suave environment minister who was then barely as famous as the little-known river that shares his name. Yeo, it emerged, had impregnated Julia Stent, a local government legislator who was glamorous, discreet, even a Conservative -- but not his wife. He managed a few days of defiant rhetoric before party officials in his constituency effectively dictated his resignation letter.
Then came an even less well-known Conservative member of Parliament, David Ashby (shared a bed with another man on holiday but only out of convenience, you understand), and fellow Tory MP Gary Waller (illegitimate child). Hartley Booth, a lowly government official and lay Baptist preacher, was the most recent -- and arguably the most ridiculous -- addition to the roll of dishonor.
Booth admitted a "close relationship" with a research assistant half his age whom he had fortuitously rescued from a part-time career as an artist's nude model. But he insisted the affair had never been consummated, prompting speculation that he may be the first politician ever to resign for not having sex.
In between, the scandal roller coaster took some dark turns. In January the wife of Transport Minister Lord Caithness committed suicide. Rumors quickly circulated that she had been driven to it by her husband's infidelity.
This month the corpse was that of Stephen Milligan, a Conservative newcomer to Westminster, seen as a rising star. He died on his kitchen table while attempting the age-old sex trick of autoerotic asphyxiation -- partially strangling oneself to heighten arousal. His body was naked except for a pair of women's stockings and a garter belt. The nation did not know whether to laugh or cry. Tragic or not, you couldn't help wondering: What was it about these British parliamentarians?
Were they really more libidinous than the average legislator? Or just more careless? They certainly seemed more adventurous. Stockings? Garter belts? Nude models? Was it something in the famous House of Commons tea?
More than one pundit has compared recent weeks to the last days of the Macmillan government of the early '60s, when War Minister John Profumo was forced to resign over an affair with a high-class call girl linked to a Russian agent.
But the great British union of politics and sex -- frequently of the complicated variety -- goes back much further than that. William Gladstone, the great Liberal prime minister of the Victorian age, liked to "save the souls" of the prostitutes he encountered strolling through London's less reputable districts during the wee hours. David Lloyd George, repeatedly prime minister and a towering figure in British politics, engaged in a long affair with his secretary. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him as "incapable of fidelity."
In the '70s even the usually comatose lords were caught at it. Lord Lambton, the air force minister, and Earl Jellicoe, the leader of the House of Lords, resigned together in 1973 over a particularly lurid prostitution scandal. Three years later Jeremy Thorpe resigned as leader of the Liberal Party after a former model claimed to have had a homosexual relationship with him. Thorpe denied it and after a lengthy trial was acquitted of conspiring to murder the man, but the damage was done.
The years of Conservative rule since Margaret Thatcher's 1979 election victory have been truly a belle epoque for Westminster scandal. There was Cecil Parkinson -- forced to resign after getting his Commons secretary pregnant -- and Heritage Secretary David Mellor, the self-styled "Minister of Fun" whose Achilles' heel was an unusually tall out-of-work actress.
The best-selling author and professional smoothie Jeffrey Archer resigned as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party after a newspaper linked him with a prostitute, although he successfully sued the paper. In the minor, but often raunchier, leagues, there was Tory MP Keith Hampson (acquitted of indecently assaulting a policeman in a Soho strip club) as well as politicians Harvey Proctor (spanking sessions with "rent boys") and Alan Amos (allegations of indecent behavior with another man in a London park).
To be scrupulously fair, the most recent avalanche of indiscretions should be added to the roll of Westminster sex scandals only with care and several caveats.
The press considered it fair game to reveal the sordid details of Milligan's death, and of Booth's fumbling advances, because of both the intense unpopularity of John Major's government and its adoption of the fatuous policy slogan "Back to Basics."
Prime Minister Major and his cabinet have since spent many hours explaining that they were calling only for a return to traditional values in education, social policy and crime prevention. But Back to Basics was promptly interpreted also as a call for a more robust private morality. And so, by the ruthless logic of politics, the private life of every Conservative legislator was suddenly very public property.
A host of psychiatrists, psychologists and other experts of just about every ilk have been quick to dispense theories explaining the apparently exotic sexual drives of British legislators. Westminster's ludicrous debating schedule -- which ensures that business frequently continues into the early hours of the morning, thus minimizing any contact between a parliamentarian and his or her family -- is a favorite, though unpersuasive, theme.
Other favorites are the peculiarly British institutions of nannies and "public" (actually very private) schools where well-bred young boys are banished to be toughened up by a regime of cold showers, nasty food and peer brutality. "There is a view that the development of fetishistic behavior is connected with the whole nanny culture," says Paul Brown, a London psychiatrist specializing in sexual deviancy. "Because once one discovers that the person that one bonds to emotionally is not the real person but a substitute, then the possibility of other substitutes arises in the psyche."
According to Brown, public schools compound the problem by thwarting a boy's natural instinct to form attachments. "The English upper-class male is miserably lacking in a serious understanding of how to manage a relationship with a woman," he says. Labor MP Tony Banks sees a less complicated connection between public school education and later sexual adventuring: "It's such an artificial sort of dehumanizing existence. Buggery seems to be part of the core curriculum."
Continental observers have long regarded the British obsession with sex and politics with puzzlement and not a little superiority. As the Parkinson scandal unfolded a little more than a decade ago, French President Francois Mitterrand remarked that, if he had to sack every minister who had been unfaithful, he would be left with a cabinet of homosexuals and women.
Several continental commentators were unimpressed with the idea that inside every British legislator lurks a secret Lothario. Count Paulo Filo dela Torre, London correspondent of the Rome daily La Repubblica, remarked contemptuously that "sex scandals in British politics are always amusing, partly because they are so ineffably dull." In Europe politicians at least commit their indiscretions with style, he added, pointing to the example of a senior French politician who liked to gratify himself in a Paris brothel by pretending to be a rooster. "Naked, he planted a long feather in his bottom and screamed 'Cock-a-doodle-doo!' on top of his hen."
The defenders of Westminster propriety are quick to point across the Atlantic to the exploits of Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart. "The idea that our MPs have got peccadilloes is pretty rich coming from Capitol Hill," says Michael White, political editor of the left-of-center Guardian newspaper and a former Washington correspondent.
It is true that -- caught between its desires and its peculiarly complex web of inhibitions -- Britain has long been the sexual laughingstock of Europe. And whatever the voyeuristic appetites of the great British public, it is also true that the London press sets about feeding them with unrivaled gusto. There are no media in the world that match the British tabloids for their potent combination of power and prurience. They might focus on the same subject matter as the National Enquirer and the Globe, but their influence is quite different. Despite their frequent and spirited protestations to the contrary, most of their readers believe what they say.
Adherents to the "beastly press" thesis scoff at continental boasts of greater maturity on matters sexual. Sure, the French public did not show any special concern over Mitterrand's alleged string of affairs. But the country's privacy laws prevented its high-minded media from reporting them even if they had wanted to.
According to Filo dela Torre, the truly distinctive aspects of the British sex scandal are the protagonists' unique ability to provide ludicrous explanations for their errant behavior -- and their uncanny ability to get caught. "In Italy they would cover their tracks in a more plausible way. In England it's a denial, then a non-denial, then another denial."
Perhaps it is only in England too that a minister's (David Mellor's, to be exact) predilection for sucking the toes of his paramour could become a national joke -- even though the lady in question revealed a few months later that he had done no such thing. Ditto Mellor's supposed enthusiasm for performing the carnal act dressed in the colors of his beloved Chelsea soccer team.
It is hard, also, to avoid the conclusion that the Conservatives hold a near-monopoly on the market in peccadilloes. Some observers point to the traditional preponderance of private school educations on the Tory benches (now much diminished), but Andrew Rawnsley, political columnist for the Observer, offers a simpler explanation: "The things that obsess you are usually the things you haven't got enough of. With Labor MPs it's money. With Conservatives it's sex."
Over the years, the Liberals have made their own challenge to the Tories with strong showings by Lloyd George and Thorpe. And more recently Paddy Ashdown, leader of the vestigial Liberal Democrats, threatened the Tory hegemony by admitting to an affair with his secretary. (He earned the eternal sobriquet of Paddy Pantsdown but survived.) But Labor legislators have never been serious players in the sex scandal stakes. Financial impropriety, sure. Even mysterious disappearances. But they've avoided being linked to illicit sex. There are a few rules that seem to govern the survivability of a politician caught in a Westminster scandal, according to Donald Macintyre, political editor of the nonpartisan Independent newspaper. Infidelity of the straight variety usually isn't politically fatal, provided it is not committed by a member of the ruling party. Even then it must be prolific -- or productive -- to be terminal. Steven Norris, a junior transport minister, last year admitted to adulterous affairs with three women while newspapers linked him to two more. Through a remarkable mixture of belligerence and candidness he survived, but few believe he would have been as lucky if any one of his exploits had ended in conception.
Any form of deviancy, including homosexuality, does not bode well, since the media inevitably raise the so-called "security angle" to rationalize their intense coverage. In the case of Stephen Milligan, a junior aide to a junior defense minister, journalists worked almost as hard to prove he had access to secret documents as they did disseminating the lurid details of his demise. Even poor Hartley Booth was submitted to a rigorous retrospective security check after his resignation as an aide to a junior Foreign Office minister. It's all to do with the threat of blackmail, you understand.
There is one final rule that, carefully observed, should license any parliamentarian to engage in activities however licentious: Don't get caught. "Clearly, getting caught is the problem," says Macintyre. "No one would suggest that any indiscretion is a reason for resigning if you don't get caught."