Why MP sex scandals no longer shock

Houses of Parliament
Image caption Can a career at Westminster survive a sex scandal?

Conservative MP Steve Double, who claimed to promote "the traditional fabric of family life", is refusing to quit after publicly admitting to an affair with his assistant. In the past, sex scandals often spelled the end of a political career, but are public attitudes changing?

The MP for St Austell and Newquay, in Cornwall, is far from the first politician to be caught with his trousers down.

Earlier this year, two SNP MPs were exposed as having had an affair with the same journalist, Serena Cowdy. However, while Stewart Hosie said he would step down as the party's deputy leader, both he and Angus MacNeil have retained their seats.

"I think we've... moved on quite some distance from the sense that personal issues, issues relating to someone's private marriage and private life, necessarily affect someone's ability to do their job," First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in their defence.

Image caption Angus MacNeil (left) and Stewart Hosie are both said to have had affairs with journalist Serena Cowdy

So has public perception about political sex scandals really changed? Matt Cole, a political historian at Birmingham University, believes it is not that straightforward.

"We acknowledge infidelity as being less shocking than it used to be," he says.

"However, when it's allied to a strong claim to principle, to decency and religious background, it does give rise to the characteristic British objection to hypocrisy."

It was precisely hypocrisy, Mr Cole says, which led to the Profumo affair in the 1963, seen as the "first public humiliation of a minister for a sex scandal".

John Profumo resigned as secretary of state for war after admitting he had lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with a 19-year-old model and showgirl, Christine Keeler.

Miss Keeler was also allegedly having an affair with a Russian spy. This was the height of the Cold War and the affair helped bring down the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan.

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Image caption John Profumo was married to British actress Valerie Hobson when he had an affair with Christine Keeler
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Image caption Profumo's affair with Christine Keeler helped to bring down the Conservative government of the time

But it was the government of John Major in the 1990s that is perhaps best remembered for its fallen politicians.

In 1992 the national heritage secretary David Mellor resigned after his affair with the actress Antonia de Sancha continued to dominate the newspapers.

"The particular difficulty on that occasion was that his party, generally, was claiming the moral high ground about the family", while Mr Mellor himself also had a bad relationship with the press, Mr Cole says.

Only a year later Major's government launched the morally charged "Back to Basics" campaign, which sparked intense media interest in MPs' private lives.

First to fall was environment minister Tim Yeo in 1994, who was exposed for fathering an illegitimate child with Conservative councillor Julia Stent.

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Image caption Former environment minister Tim Yeo with his wife Diane

His resignation was followed by a string of others, including that of the minister for aviation and shipping, the Earl of Caithness, whose wife committed suicide following his infidelity, and the whip Michael Brown, who the tabloids claimed had had an affair with a 20-year-old man.

Eventually Mr Major himself would admit to having had a four-year affair with the Conservative minister Edwina Currie, prior to his premiership when he was a whip in Margaret Thatcher's government.

"Public attitudes towards politicians' infidelity have changed over the period, most obviously since the Second World War, but in particular in periods where political parties have taken very strong stands on family values," Gidon Cohen, a senior lecturer at Durham University's school of government and international affairs says.

During the "Back to Basics" campaign, the Conservative Party "made moral values an important part of their political platform and set themselves up for examination with respect to those values", he says.

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Image caption John Major and Edwina Currie had an affair in the 1980s - although it did not become public until decades later

While Mr Cole suggests people today are less concerned about infidelity in principle, he says new factors now shape the outcome of political sex scandals.

Firstly the media and politicians "have become much more hostile to each other, and much more ready to try to attack and regulate one another", he says.

Mr Cole believes modern politicians are today "more readily and cruelly exposed", which he says is a reflection of the decline of that relationship, as well as the development of social media.

Another factor is the increased public distrust of politicians, he says.

"They've been through the expenses scandal, they've been through tuition fees and the Iraq war, and the sleaze under John Major," he says.

"The public are ready to hear stories about untrustworthiness" and the press are more prepared to deliver them, he adds.

However, this also means scandals have less impact now than they once did, says Professor Richard Toye, of the University of Exeter.

Image caption David Blunkett was home secretary in 2004 when the News of the World revealed he had been having an affair with then Spectator magazine publisher Kimberly Quinn

"Something that would have been truly sensational in the 1950s, just because there weren't that many cases of it being reported, now there's a degree of scandal fatigue," he says.

"People haven't necessarily stopped being interested in it, [but] they may have stopped deciding to inflict serious political consequences" on unfaithful politicians, he suggests.

"In general there is probably a greater willingness to treat infidelity per se in a more tolerant or generous way than would have been the case, say, 50 years ago."

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Image caption Lord Prescott admitted having an affair with his aide in 2006

The popularity and policies of a government or political party can also save the unfaithful politician, according to Mr Cole.

He suggests Labour MPs David Blunkett and Lord Prescott were able to survive revelations about their infidelities partly because their party ideology was "more socially liberal" and did not focus so much on the "traditional family". The Blair government was also "quite popular" at the time of these allegations in the mid 2000s.

Most importantly, a sex scandal is "perfectly survivable" for a politician if he or she, firstly, acknowledges it straight off and secondly, does not appear hypocritical, according to Mr Cole.

He points to Paddy Ashdown, whose ratings actually "shot up" as leader of the Liberal Democrats when his affair with his secretary was exposed, inspiring The Sun newspaper to call him "Paddy Pantsdown".

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Image caption Jane Ashdown supported her husband through the scandal
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Image caption Boris Johnson is reported to have fathered an illegitimate child during one affair

"We know for example that Boris Johnson is a person who's had a number of affairs, but I don't think he is associated with claims to unusual levels of moral propriety... there's no attempt to disguise the difficulties he's had in his private life", Mr Cole says.

The married father-of-four was sacked from the Tory frontbench in 2004 over an affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt. In 2013 the appeal court ruled the public had a right to know about an illegitimate child he had fathered during an affair with his advisor.

If a politician is regarded as charismatic, the revelation of an affair can also cement this image in the public mind, says Mr Cole.

The 1993 publication of MP Alan Clark's diaries, which notoriously detailed his extra-marital exploits with the wife and daughters of a South African judge, had "no particular impact on his status", Mr Cole says.

Mr Clark successfully secured a seat in parliament just four years later, admittedly as MP for the very safe Tory seat of Kensington and Chelsea.

Image caption Alan Clark's diaries publicised his extra-marital affairs, as well as details of in-fighting at Westminster during the Thatcher years

For Mr Cole, the explanation for why so many politicians risk it all lies both in the nature of the job, and the type of people attracted to the profession.

"Henry Kissinger said that politics is an aphrodisiac," Mr Cole says.

"Politicians and their staff and their assistants are people who spend a lot of time together, in quite intense circumstances, sometimes involving a good deal of secrecy about the work they're doing, and who have to trust each other very closely".

"Throw into that the fact that politicians are rarely people burdened by self doubt", Mr Cole says, and you have a situation where politicians may be more likely to "fall foul to temptation" than those in other lines of work.

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Image caption Steve Double MP said he 'deeply regrets' the pain he has caused

Since news of his affair became public, Mr Double has reportedly ended his relationship with his assistant Sarah Bunt and issued a statement regretting "the pain I have caused those closest to me".".

Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of his party association - who is also the father-in-law of Ms Bunt - has quit and said it would be "honourable" for Mr Double to resign.

He must now wait to discover whether the public will forgive his indiscretion.

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