Betsygate blues

Submitted by Anon on 23 October, 2003 - 5:23

By Lucy Clement

Betsygate is one of the sillier political scandals of late. There's no real question of corruption - just a question of whether Mrs Duncan Smith was paid taxpayers' money to do a "real" job as a secretary, or whether she was helping out in the way any MP's partner would reasonably do for free. It's only blown up because so many people in the Conservative Party have an axe to grind against their leader.
When Iain Duncan Smith stood for the leadership, there was one big thing going for him with the party grass roots. He was - in the words of his predecessor as MP for Chingford Norman Tebbit - a "remarkably normal family man". Hadn't experimented with homosexuality or anything else deviant at university, had seen active service in the army and had a posh and pretty wife of the type favoured by Tory matrons.

IDS's victory in the leadership contest was largely down to the combination of an anti-Portillo backlash among MPs and the fact that the leader most likely to do the party any electoral good - Ken Clarke - was, because of his pro-EU views, unpalatable to the Little Englander party membership. And thus the party landed itself with a leader with even less charisma than the unfortunate William Hague.

The Tory spin-doctors didn't have much to work with - but the family image was a potential strength. Betsy would be a nice contrast to career woman Cherie. Unfortunately, Betsy wouldn't play ball. She wouldn't move to London, preferring to stay in the country and while she continued to work as her husband's "diary secretary" she wanted to do so from home. She wouldn't speak to the media - or speak at party events. The resentment felt by modernisers in the party machine, who never liked the new leader anyway, was extended from IDS to his wife.

But it's a symptom of the utter ridiculousness of Tory politics that the Betsy affair has blown up into such a crisis.

No-one's in favour of people being paid large sums of money by the taxpayer to do nothing. But if Betsy's been putting her feet up at home rather than keeping the diaries organised then she's hardly the worst example of a waste of public money. What about the vastly-expanded numbers of special advisers employed by New Labour? What about the ministerial chauffeurs? What about the hundreds of quangos packed with favoured appointees entitled to generous expenses?

The Tories don't throw any of these back against the Betsy allegations: they'd do the same if they were in office. The Betsy affair is a piece of office back-stabbing conveniently picked up by people who for political reasons disagree with IDS. And it's an indictment of the state of the Tories that IDS's opponents haven't got the nerve to try to ditch him on a political basis.

There's an interesting footnote to the Betsy story. Someone - presumably an opponent of IDS - gave it to the journalist Michael Crick, who produced a report on it for Newsnight. But at the mere threat of a libel writ, the BBC pulled it, and the piece has yet to be broadcast. That's proof of just how nervous BBC executives and editors have got over Hutton. Eventually the Sunday Telegraph ran it - presumably on the judgement that even IDS wouldn't be so foolish as to sue one of the few papers that continue to support his party.

Is all this relevant to anyone? If IDS is found to have misused money, he'll have to go. But the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards can't compel witnesses to give evidence to his inquiry. The MPs' Standards and Privileges Committee can - but the Committee has a Labour majority. Does that count against IDS? Don't count on it. What interest has the Government in getting rid of that great political asset - a hopeless opposition?

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