Aisha Iqbal: Are we seeing the full-scale return of sleazy politics - or a growing witch-hunt?

My political awakening in the 1990s coincided with the height of sleaze-gate, a period of UK history at least partly defined by one political scandal after another, from which no level of Government was seemingly immune.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 3rd November 2017, 5:38 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 5:17 am

Of course all political history is littered with instances of foolishness and wanton, arrogant behaviour which have derailed and destroyed the most promising of careers.

There was a sense somewhat that it hit its nadir in the 1990s, but in recent days, it seems we have come full circle.

Or have we?

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Former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon falling on his sword this week has potentially opened the floodgates to more allegations, speculative stories and - ultimately - uncomfortable truths.

Every single allegation is regrettable and, if true, offenders should be punished accordingly.

But here’s the thing. Some allegations will be true, and some won’t. This is something it behoves all of us to remember.

Sir Michael’s carefully worded resignation letter suggested there was more to come from this particular story and the wider storm currently brewing at Westminster.

The Prime Minister’s even more carefully worded response to his letter - and her calling of a cross-party crisis meeting on the issue - cemented that feeling.

It is interesting to note, however, that the other political parties have been relatively quiet in their condemnations in relation to the scandal currently engulfing the Conservative Government.

Just a few days ago, of course, Labour was dealing with its own problems following revelations about the conduct of Sheffield MP Jared O Mara, the young pretender who unseated former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

This is not a story about particular political parties being hotbeds of sleaze and sexism and bad behaviour.

This is about the age old adage that power corrupts - and the other universal truth that all humans are fallible.

I don’t wish to make excuses for those politicians who have behaved appallingly and subjected colleagues to unpleasantness.

I also don’t in any way wish to undermine, demean or throw doubt on the genuine trauma experienced by the people who have been at the receiving end of sexual misconduct and worse.

And I, like many, suspect this week’s revelations are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Harassment and abuse in all its forms is unacceptable.

But while Sir Michael’s behaviour - as he himself admits - fell below the standards required of his position, it has to be noted that the woman at the centre of the row - Julia Hartley Brewer - has openly laughed off the 15-year old ‘knee-gate’ incident cited in relation to his resignation.

It remains to be seen whether this and other allegations will open the general floodgates.

But parallel to the ominous feeling of there being much more to come, there is a disturbing undercurrent of a growing witch-hunt.

Public trust in politicians hit an all time low with the expenses scandal and has never really recovered. At best, it has limped along.

This scandal will clearly do nothing to improve that.

It is to be hoped that the parliamentary disciplinary system will deal with these allegations in the correct way, and those who have been wronged will get justice.

But we all need to be careful.

The 1990s height of sleaze-gate is different in one very important way from the current furore - the method of dissemination of the rumours.

The advent of social media - and the proliferation of fake news - means the tittle tattle machine is in overdrive.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the current raft of rumours is followed by a long list of libel actions.

There is even talk of a ‘sleaze spreadsheet’. I fear there are dangerous connotations here - with the only likely winners being the libel lawyers.

I hope this doesn’t overshadow the core issue - the need to get justice for the victims. It would be an appalling double injustice if that did happen.

We need to ensure the system works for the benefit of those who have been genuinely wronged, however belated that redress might be.

But it’s also important for us to keep some sense of perspective - and separate the truth from the hysteria.