In which Carter muses aloud about the nature of leadership in political parties.
The exposure of the ugly rumours about Charles Rennard is following the typical narrative arc of such a story. First we had the splashy exclusives in the paper that made the scoop.
To counterpose those we had the carefuly worded denial from Rennard’s lawyers. Suddenly, as if the story was no longer about the truth, or Rennard’s guilt or innocence, or, heaven forbid, the victims, we had to focus shift onto Vince Cable’s denial that anyone knew anything, and Nick Clegg’s careful admission that yes, he knew something five years ago.
More will follow. That’s almost a certainty. Not just about Charles Rennard though.
One of the most noticeable trends in politics is the way in which scandals follow the loss of authority, rather than preceding it.
The MP’s expenses scandal followed a collapse in moral authority throughout the political class, rather than preceding it. However, scandals within a party almost always follow either a loss of leadership and authority, or a loss of a sense of purpose.
That the Liberal Democrats have been assailed by such a loss of a sense of purpose is probably not as clear now as it will be after the 2015 general election, but the key question is, ‘What are the Liberal Democrats for?’
It seems like an obvious question, but it’s not. In a binary system, in the UK with two major parties, the LibDems provided a way of not voting for either major party, a kind of refuge from the polarities of Labour and Conservative. That unique selling point was of course undermined by the formal coalition agreement of 2010. Not by the act of entering into coalition – that will have seemed like a good thing to many moderates, but the signing of an explicit coalition agreement was a signal of alignment that will have made many moderates dubious about the degree of ideological commitment involved.
Here’s a secret you probably already knew dear reader. Political parties are full of flawed, compromised politicians who are just one headline away from the end of their careers.
Now, Stavvers wrote brilliantly here about how to avoid sex scandals. Since so many politicians eschew that method they’re always on the brink of exposure.
Except there’s a kind of devil’s pact between the media and the politicians. While a party or politician possesses authority, the press will ignore stories they know about. It’s no different to the way in which Jimmy Saville was able to deploy his fame as a shield against accusations.
There’s a second devil’s pact though. The media are far closer to politicians than they care to admit. Journalists have their secrets, their fears and their insecurities. Journalists know that, in a world where there’s too little money and too little time to develop stories properly, they’re dependent on the benevolent stream of stories from politicians and their press officers.
Except when authority declines, and they sense that the stream of stories is going to end sooner or later anyway.
Then, suddenly, it becomes open season on a politician or a party. That is the fear for the LibDems now, that for the next two years it becomes open season on them.
There’s an intra party devil’s pact too. Within the party everyone knows that all heroes have feet of clay. Authority is loaned by the party membership and supporters to the leadership, to enable them to deliver on their ambitions and hopes. As soon as the ambitions and hopes diminish, or become unattainable, the loan of authority is recalled, and the party becomes an ungovernable infighting mass.
For the women members of the LibDems who have told their stories about Charles Rennard, that recall of authority in the face of diminished hopes and abandoned ambitions has begun.