WHEN Tory MP Patrick Mercer resigned from his party on Friday over allegations he took cash to ask parliamentary questions it was suggested David Cameron might crack open a bottle of fizz to celebrate.
Some commentators glibly remarked that the Prime Minister would rejoice at the end of the career of a parliamentary colleague who had once described him as a “despicable creature” and suggested the Conservative Party should remove him as leader. The final days of the Cameron family holiday on Ibiza would be beyond jolly in the aftermath of Mercer’s humiliation.
Cameron may have relished the crushing of an irritant; who among us can honestly say we don’t enjoy seeing our foes brought down in lobbying scandals, exposed by Panorama? But Mercer’s disgrace should have been no cause for celebration for a Prime Minister who has exerted such effort to try to detoxify the Tory brand.
The allegations against the MP for Newark are devastating. It was reported yesterday that Mercer signed a contract with a bogus lobbying firm (in fact, a pair of undercover journalists) and, for a promised £24,000, asked five parliamentary questions on Fiji, tabled a motion calling for the country to be allowed back into the Commonwealth, and offered a pass giving access to the House of Commons.
Mercer’s actions remind us of the “Tory sleaze” headlines that helped destroy John Major’s government in the 1990s. By the time Tony Blair took Labour to power in 1997, the Tories’ reputation was in the gutter, dragged down there by scandals sexual and financial.
Wearing the blinkers they hand out at the entrance to the political bubble, it may be possible to see Mercer’s as a story about the downfall of one of the Prime Minister’s enemies but in the real world it’s about a bent Tory MP, just like we had in the bad old days.
Labour leader Ed Miliband might see an opportunity, here. His party may be leading the Tories in the polls, but a popular current analysis (which I find irresistible) says that Miliband doesn’t have the personal authority or charisma to win an election. When it comes down to it, goes the theory, Cameron seems more prime ministerial and that counts for a lot.
Miliband’s dullness may seem more appealing if the Prime Minister is seen to be leading a party which lied when it said it had cleaned up its act. The Mercer affair (please tell me it doesn’t have a “gate”, yet) writes for the leader of the opposition a simple script about those same old sleazy Tories. Miliband, though, may be cautious about reading those lines too soon. If bogus lobbyists have been floating around the Houses of Parliament, Labour’s leader will want to be certain that he doesn’t have, on his own benches, any members similarly seduced by their cash.
It’s a tricky call for Miliband. Does he go in hard and risk humiliation if it turns out a Labour MP has been recently corrupted, or does he play gently and, by failing to attack the Tories, allow Mercer’s behaviour to be a reflection on all politicians, regardless of party?
There are two politicians who had genuine cause for celebration on Friday. First Minister Alex Salmond’s story depends on Scots exhibiting a peculiar type of integrity. Mercer’s behaviour plays beautifully into that narrative; Westminster is full of crooks, it whispers, not like the Scottish Parliament. If you thought they’d changed after the expenses scandal, it adds, then you’re wrong.
And the SNP will, I’m sure, enjoy reminding Labour that it stands with the Tory party that bred Mercer under the Better Together banner. There are points to be scored, and fun to be had, for Salmond. But the First Minister isn’t the big political winner. Surely the recipient of the Mercer jackpot is Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who’s having quite a run of luck at the moment.
Farage’s party depends for its support on voters who have grown cynical about mainstream politics. Not everyone who votes Ukip does so because they passionately want to leave the European Union. Many of its supporters back it, not because of what Ukip stands for but because it’s seen as existing outside a tarnished political establishment. Mercer’s greedy little wheeze can only feed into that jaded – if too often justified – view that politicians are primarily in it for what they can get.
Ukip recently took a quarter of the vote in English council polls. Farage was quite right in his analysis that Ukip’s achievement was down to voters feeling that mainstream parties were as indistinguishable as they were self-interested.
Mercer will find his place in the Ukip story. Can’t you hear Farage now? “They call us loons and fruitcakes while they fill their pockets doing dodgy deals.”
Mercer has announced that he will stand down at the next General Election in 2015, seeing out the remainder of his parliamentary term as an independent MP. Whether this is a sustainable position, we don’t yet know. We are yet to see the Panorama programme based on the lobbying sting. The content of that documentary may make unbearable the pressure on Mercer to depart the Commons.
The MP has a 16,000 majority in Newark while Ukip polled less than four per cent in the constituency in 2010. But Farage’s party pulled in a far healthier 17 per cent in the local council elections last month. Add in to the mix financial scandal and the fact that neither Labour nor the Lib Dems are serious contenders for Newark and it’s not difficult to imagine Ukip making a by-election breakthrough should Mercer decide enough’s enough.
Mercer did all he could while a Tory MP to make Cameron’s life a misery. He wanted, but failed, to see him removed as Tory leader. Perhaps, if he forces a by-election that Ukip have a chance of winning, Mercer might still play his part in Cameron’s downfall, even though his own disgrace is complete. «