Don't stare too long at the notches on the bedpost

No stranger to controversy herself, the ex-MP says politicians' sex lives distract from real issues

By Edwina Currie
Last updated Sunday April 6 2008

Last week I weakened and bought GQ. What exactly had demure, squeaky-clean Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg been thinking when he announced that he had had 30 lovers and was quite good in bed? On Question Time Clare Short, Theresa May and Sarah Teather were equally baffled. Meanwhile, 63-year-old Ken Livingstone was revealed to have fathered no fewer than five children with three different mothers, not quite what one expects shortly before the most hotly contested mayoral election for years.

What is it with these politicians? Is a casual attitude to sex, love and parenthood so insignificant that they assume they can get away with it? Is male virility of such value that it ranks ahead of probity and discretion as a political virtue in this benighted 21st century? Or is it just the flowering of spring, as the sap rises and the step quickens and the bunnies go hopping about in the fields?

To be fair to Nick Clegg, he didn't claim 30 lovers, rather the opposite: 'No more than 30.' And he was becomingly modest: 'I don't think I am particularly brilliant or particularly bad!' But an interview in a posh boys' mag with that dirty-minded old pro Piers Morgan was bound to end in disaster. Sandwiched between ads for Jaguars and Savile Row suits, Clegg's defence to silly hypothetical questions ('If Iraq invaded us...') and to blatantly rude inquiries into his private life make him sound a complete prat. He's Cleggover from here on, and will be forever greeted in the Commons by backbenchers waving a leg.

Livingstone is in a different mode. He always seemed far too engrossed in politics to be distracted by sexual dalliance, so we believed that fatherhood had come only lately, at an age when most men have grandchildren. The offspring of the Livingstone loins, he shrugged, were 'private' not secret. Perhaps 'come up and see my biggest newt' was a more successful chat-up line than we all realised.

There's nothing new about powerful men acting and talking as if their personal behaviour was entirely their own affair. Indeed, had Clegg simply told Morgan he would not stoop to his level by answering such interrogation, as he did over drug-taking at university, we would have nodded in approval. Livingstone clearly felt it was none of our business over the years, and perhaps he was right; far better to judge him on how he and his acolytes misspend public money.

What the public react to, however, is the contrast between what a politician says, or implies, about what he regards as important, and what he is actually doing when the lights are out. That's hypocrisy, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I can't be too censorious, and I won't be. But if a man wants to project a responsible, clean-living image as his normal way of life, then it helps to live it. Of course it does depend what you regard as normal. I recall a debate at the DHSS in 1986 as we discussed the wording for the first Aids leaflet going to 23 million households. How should we warn against promiscuity?

'It depends what you mean by promiscuity,' murmured Minister of State, John Major. We went round the table. 'Three or more,' I suggested coyly. 'Twelve?' came from another minister. 'At least 50,' suggested an aide, then blushed furiously as we all gaped.

On Friday's Woman's Hour the discussion focused on the persistent double standards facing male and female politicians. The men, like Alan Clark, tend to boast about their prowess (even when fictional), while for women it's a big no-no. The old stereotypes are still around.

I used to deflect interest by saying that the handful of women MPs had worked too darned hard to get to the Commons to put their careers at risk, though Mo Mowlam famously claimed a 'spectacularly chaotic' love-life. It is hard to imagine Jacqui Smith being asked how many lovers she has had, or dealing with it other than with a snort. Yet when Paddy Ashdown was revealed to have had an affair with his secretary, his poll ratings went up; and while some voters were disgusted with President Clinton's sexual behaviour in the Oval Office others, mainly men, admired and envied him.

The difference between our times and that of earlier generations is that whereas politicians once kept their mouths shut about mistresses while much was known about their income and expenditure, now it's the other way round.

'Honesty' is to be applied to sex and paternity, it seems, but not to the grocery bill. Information on the latter has had to be extracted from the Commons Egyptian mummy-style, drawing the brain out through the nostrils with pincers.
Be warned: both are a distraction. Tony Benn was right; it's the 'ishoos' that matter. As we wallow in trivia, the effects of policies will never be properly examined and condemned. And that is why we are scratching our heads over grocery bills and petrol prices, why thousands will lose their homes this year, why millions are gasping at their April pay cheque as yet more dosh goes to the Exchequer, why more soldiers will die in Iraq.

Take too much interest in who they are sleeping with, and they will get away with daylight robbery. Or worse.

The Observer - Sunday April 6th 2008

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