We need a safe space for the political self harmers, Michael Howard and Ken Livingstone
Among the many entertaining tales that Ken Clarke recounts in his memoir, Kind of Blue, one of the best is his meeting in Downing Street with Rebekah Brooks, the good friend of the prime minister and former editor of the Sun who had recently become a News International executive. Clarke, then a liberal justice secretary whose tendencies were plainly deplored by the Sun, avoided the meeting for as long as he could but finally they came face to face.
Brooks’s mission was to persuade him that the answer to overcrowded jails was not sending fewer people to prison in the first place, but to commission a fleet of prison ships capable of housing thousands more. The suggestion was briskly dealt with, the meeting ended, and they never met again.
But this has been the kind of week in politics when prison hulks feel as if they could after all offer a way ahead. Not as an answer to overcrowded prisons, which are as full of the ill and the addicted as they were when Clarke wanted to stop sending them to prison as justice secretary, but as a way of permanently removing from television studios elderly politicians for whom the House of Lords is just not obscure enough. This is not for the philanderers or the expenses cheats, nor the fraudsters, the liars, nor the serially disloyal, although they could perhaps be found cabins on the lower decks.
It is a special five-star resort reserved for an elite composed exclusively of politicians whose behaviour has turned into a caricature of the very aspects of their political personality that once drew people to them. Like the depravities of Dorian Gray being written on the face of his portrait in the attic, it is for those who, although out of mainstream politics, still retain some purchase on the sentiments and in the hearts of the party faithful.
At first glance it seems as if the list of contenders, even from the recent past, is too long for a single ship, but it is quickly weeded. George Osborne’s eye-widening appetite for highly paid extracurricular work is not really unpredictable, nor is it unexpected for David Cameron to sound so unrepentant in his defence of the Brexit referendum.
Those who people the decade of shame that includes Denis MacShane’s fraudulent expenses claims and Chris Huhne’s perversion of the course of justice, taking in the tawdry duck houses, 24in flatscreen TVs and double counting of homes in the MPs’ expenses scandal, have committed transgressions not yet grave enough to earn a place among this distinguished crowd. Nor yet are those involved in tales of cash-stuffed brown envelopes, nor Jonathan Aitken’s trusty sword of truth which landed him in a real prison. These are people who have offended in the world of law and order.
Only two candidates completely fit the charge sheet. For the left, and for many Londoners, Ken Livingstone was once that rare political combination of creative and practical. He had a bold idea of what the mayor of a great city could do to make the lives of ordinary citizens better and he did it. It is the way that he has so recklessly deployed these very qualities of original thought and courage under fire in defence of an indefensible antisemitism that for his admirers has made his betrayal so bitter.
Imagine, too, if one had once been persuaded by Michael Howard’s crisp lawyerly intellect and uncompromising rightwing politics. Imagine the debt of gratitude you might feel for the man who as Conservative leader pulled the party back from oblivion. How gutting for them to hear this once irreproachably rational politician imply not once, or twice, but three times that Britain might go to war with Spain over Gibraltar.
Livingstone and Howard have nothing at all in common but a career in politics. Yet they both ended up in a place where few of their old fans could follow – not from acting out of character, but from acting in it. It is not a comfortable experience.