Comment: a Brief History of Tory Sleaze

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There are some things that never change; that the sun will rise in the east, that I can’t cook, and that the Tories will always suffer from sleaze.

The Conservative Party prides itself on traditional values, and I suppose that’s apt given that corruption and sleaze isn’t exactly a new invention. Perhaps we oughtn’t be surprised that our Classics-at-Balliol PM likely took one look at Caligula and thought “Now that’s what I call good old-fashioned principles”.

Yet the sleaze stories weren’t always quite as bad as they are today. Back in the 90’s, a major scandal constituted a backbencher exchanging a brown envelope of soggy tenners for a sizzling question in the House about the particularities associated in executing the issuance of a new passport.

In today’s world, however, things have progressed. For example, it was reported in The Times recently that the price of a peerage now seems to be a party donation in excess of Three Million Pounds. Not only is this an absurd figure, but it makes a complete mockery of what is supposedly a fair and balanced chamber of reasoned and sensible debate. I for one would choose feudalism any day over the ghastly distastefulness of power-seeking squillionaires purchasing peerages. Acts like this simply thrust great jerrycans of petrol upon the bonfire of resentment against the Lords, furthering the cause of those who wish to dismantle what ought to be, in principle, a fundamentally worthwhile aspect of our democracy.

Meanwhile, the government can’t make up its mind whether or not backbenchers lobbying the Commons for private gain is a good or a bad thing, with Johnson presumably too busy planning his summer to care. This is perhaps the worst aspect. I wouldn’t mind as much if the government at least look as though they think the proverbial has hit the fan, but the fact that they view parliament with such contempt as to not pitch up to a debate on it is frankly just embarrassing.

See, back in the day we would all get a bit excited by the prospect of a good scandal; that this would shake up Westminster and get our greedy politicians thrown in the slammer. But corruption and sleaze are sadly baked into the Westminster cake, and into the Tory cake in particular. The recent hit in the polls is simply due to us being rudely reminded of the repulsiveness of Parliament. Yet we’ll equally remember soon enough that there’s bugger all we can do about it, and as soon as Starmer opens his mouth again, things will return to normal.

The sad truth is that this is all of no real consequence to Johnson. Sleaze and corruption are storms that the Tories know how to weather, on account of their extensive experience. And hence, these days it has just come to be expected, which is a shame, because it oughtn’t. Conservatism oughtn’t have the stale whiff of yuppie Thatcherite greed, not because it is electorally damaging but because it is quite simply antithetical to the ideals of pragmatic, principled government that appeals to sound democracy and the efficacy of the invisible hand. Unfortunately, Johnson is about as poor a standard-bearer of these ideals as they come.

In light of all this, I thought it would be a fun exercise to take a stroll down memory lane, and have a look at some of the great Tory scandals.


The scandal that shocked the world, which was impressive given it was back in the swinging-sixties. It reads today like a Fleming novel; posh MPs, illicit romps, Soviet spies, and fallen governments.

Yes! Yes! Yes Minister!

John “Back to Basics” Major certainly took the Lord’s command to be fruitful to heart as evidenced by his four-year affair with future cabinet minister Edwina Currie back when he was a government whip in the late 80s.

Cash for Questions

The tried-and-tested side hustle for the discerning down-and-out Tory MP. Neil Hamilton for example was found to have accepted bribes from Harrod’s owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed, in exchange for asking questions in the House regarding his British Passport.

It all goes Ritz up for Aitken

Jonathan Aitken, whilst a minister for defence procurement, was accused of allowing an Arab businessman to pay for a stay at the Paris Ritz, breaching ministerial rules on obligation. The ensuing libel case brought about by Aitken led him to perjure himself, resulting in him serving an eighteen month prison sentence, whereupon his perpetual guilt led to him becoming a priest.

Cash for Curtains (Ongoing)

Boris’ £800 per-roll wallpaper left such a dent that nobody is quite sure where the remaining £58 000 spent on his No. 11 flat came from. Cummings pressed that it came from a Tory Peer, whilst Johnson promised he paid for it, whilst Eustace said it came from a loan. Does anybody know? Could this finally be curtains for Johnson? The answer to these questions is: probably not.

Matthew Macdonald

Editor 2021-2022

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