Rob Wilson: Strains of being in the eye of a political storm

AS Jeremy Hunt’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, I came as close as I ever wish to come to being at the centre of a huge political storm. Unless you are close to the centre, it is hard to imagine the unbearable stress and pressure it places on a human being and those close to them.

It certainly made me think and the result can be seen in my new book The Eye of the Storm. It is an attempt to set out the experiences of 10 MPs who found themselves fighting to save their job or career.

The MPs’ expenses scandal has certainly accelerated the environment in which there is, in general, an outright hostility to most politicians regardless of their party. While this dislike of MPs was building before 2009, the scale of the apparent greed left the public outraged and never likely to hold politicians in the same regard.

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The flip side of that coin is that it is now almost impossible for an MP to get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. The result is no one sees or is really that interested in the impact of these scandals and dramas to the individuals and their family. And the cost in the fury and heat of the moment can be very considerable.

The “Plebgate” affair involved the Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, being accused of swearing at a police officer in Downing Street and calling him a “pleb”. It was particularly toxic politically at a time of economic austerity and it fitted with a Labour narrative of “out of touch Tory Toffs”. It only emerged later that large parts of what was claimed to have happened turned out to be untrue.

The impact on Mitchell was immense. His physical and mental health suffered to the extent where he now says that had things continued he would simply have “faded away”.

The impact on Mitchell was so severe because it struck at him personally, at his view of himself and the way others regarded him. Jacqui Smith, the apparently thick skinned first female Home Secretary, had a similar experience. She withstood a huge bombardment over a lengthy period and would have beaten it all were it not for pornographic films accidentally claimed by her husband on expenses.

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The difference again was that this struck at her personally and her family. As a strong woman who believed she had done nothing wrong with the earlier claims about where she lived, she could absorb the pressure. But this struck at her family and its ability to operate smoothly. Her husband found the spotlight unbearable, causing nervous stress. As the family’s main carer it became impossible for Smith to continue and triggered her resignation.

There are significant lessons for politicians to learn about dealing with a scandal, get on top of it early being one of the most important. Liam Fox and Charles Clarke both had a certain arrogance (which is not necessarily a bad trait in a leader) which led them to believe that they should focus on their job and not on the daily media accusations. For both it proved a mistake. If both had got on top of their respective crises early on, they both could – and should – have survived. Ultimately in these cases survival depends on the support of the Prime Minister and backbench colleagues, and Clarke had neither in his hour of need.

Of all the stories in the book, Chris Huhne’s is perhaps the most absorbing and controversial. Huhne, whether you liked him or loathed him, was an exceptionally talented politician and a one-time candidate for leader of his party. In spite, or perhaps as a consequence, of his prodigious gift he allowed himself to think he could defy the laws of the political gravity.

Huhne’s scandal was utterly self-inflicted, getting his wife to take his driving offence points then having an affair with his aide and leaving his wife Vicky Pryce. His wife’s revenge was to disclose the driving offence details to a journalist on The Sunday Times.

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Throughout the following ordeal Huhne kept a remarkable, almost cold-blooded or robotic, composure. He knew he was lying and that his family was falling apart but he seemingly focused on the preservation of his political career above all else.

Even Huhne, as it turned out, could not defy the laws of political gravity forever and 
quite rightly was brought to justice. It would be naïve to expect anyone to feel any sympathy, especially given his lack of remorse since being released from prison. However, he sacrificed the relationship not only with his wife but also with at least one of his children, something that would be painful for any father.

Politics is a harsh and unforgiving business and MPs do often play a big part in their own downfall. But politicians are the same as every other part of society. It is important that they are held to account and made to be transparent and open with the public, but it is also important that they are also treated as human beings.

• Rob Wilson is a Conservative MP and author of The Eye of the Storm: The View from the Centre of the Political Scandal, published by Biteback publishing, price £20.