Is an MP entitled to a private past?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Politicians “are entitled to a past that remains private”. That's the declared view of Tory leader David Cameron. And he can expect a lot of support from attorney general Lord Goldsmith as aspects of their pasts are subjected to media probing.c

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Politicians “are entitled to a past that remains private”. That's the declared view of Tory leader David Cameron. And he can expect a lot of support from attorney general Lord Goldsmith as aspects of their pasts are subjected to media probing.

In Mr Cameron's case the subject that has the hounds on the trail is drugs - more specifically, those that he may or may not have taken (and when) before he became an MP. And in Lord Goldsmith's it's sex - following the disclosure that he had an affair with barrister Kim Hollis.

Both men have been saying it's a private matter. But is it? It wouldn't be for one of them, would it, if he as an adult had knowingly committed a serious breach of the law? Or if the ability to carry out a public duty had been impaired?


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Lord Goldsmith cannot have failed to notice an insinuation of the latter in a headline in Monday's Daily Mail which asked: “Was Goldsmith's mind on his job as he betrayed his loyal wife?”

In the body of the story a “legal source” was quoted anonymously with an allegation that the attorney general “used to disappear off the radar for hours” during his affair with Mrs Hollis. And the claim was made all the more serious by further suggestions that the relationship was taking place in March 2003 when Lord Goldsmith was at the centre of a storm over the advice he gave - in the approach to hostilities - about the legality of going to war in Iraq.

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He first warned that there might be a legal problem, but then changed his advice and gave the prime minister the green light he wanted. For this, the attorney general has long been accused of bowing to political pressure. Now there is the further theory - if that is not too grand a word for it - that his judgment may have been clouded at the time because his mind was on other things.

The story has broken at a sensitive time for Lord Goldsmith and the government. It is only a few days since the revelation that the director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, had also been having an affair - with barrister Kirsty Brimelow. And he and Lord Goldsmith will soon be strongly linked with the big decision as to whether key figures in 10 Downing Street should be charged following the 'loans for peerages' investigations.

What a rich and potentially explosive brew this is. If you want Middle England to think that the country is run by a bunch of sleazy incompetents, and that they may be let off the hook by some of their own, you might well be rubbing your hands in glee. Which doesn't necessarily mean, of course, that there is much, if anything, in this story that is genuinely a matter for public concern.

Meanwhile, the innuendo and whispering about Mr Cameron and drugs not merely continues, but has actually gone up a gear. Interest was revived by the disclosure in a book (The Rise of the New Conservative, by James Hanning and Francis Elliott) that the Tory leader had been punished at Eton for smoking cannabis. And it has since shifted from cannabis to cocaine. The Independent on Sunday ran two pages on “Cannabis, cocaine and the court of Cameron” and, at the other end of the political spectrum, the Mail on Sunday also made a point of getting up Mr Cameron's nose.

An ICM survey published in yesterday's Guardian indicated that so far there has been no damage whatsoever to his standing. It suggested that under his leadership the Tories would comfortably outpoll a Gordon Brown-led Labour Party in a general election - with the Conservatives winning 42pc of the votes and Labour only 29pc. But a word of caution: the interviews for the opinion poll were largely conducted before the word 'cocaine' started to appear in headlines.

A key reference point in this story is Mr Cameron's statement, under journalistic pressure, soon after becoming his party's leader that he had never “snorted cocaine as an MP”. It was as interesting for what it didn't say as for what it did. He was nonetheless allowed to get away with it at the time. But every so often the issue comes back.

Has Mr Cameron ever taken cocaine? If the answer is 'no', then why doesn't he simply say so? His failure to do that invites a conclusion that he has used it. If so, when? When he worked for Carlton TV (1994-2001)? Before then when he worked as a political adviser at the Home Office (1993-94)? Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott clearly had the latter in mind in saying: “David Cameron says law-makers must not be lawbreakers - but a special adviser to the home secretary makes more drug laws than most MPs”.

If there is any substance, as it were, to the insinuations, there may have been witnesses. No-one has so far come forward. But might someone be holding information back for a more damaging time - like a general election?

That, and the possibility that the issue might turn from one of drug-taking to truth-telling (or the lack of it) are nagging worries for the Tories. But Mr Cameron could easily resolve matters one way or another by being completely open and unambiguous. That could be his and his party's best bet.

ED'S ON THE BALL AMONG THE CITY FAITHFUL

One of the most influential people in the country - a government minister widely tipped to be chancellor of the exchequer within a few years - sat unrecognised in 'the Norwich end' at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Wearing his yellow and green scarf and jeans, and repeatedly joining in the singing of 'On the ball, City', Ed Balls - economic secretary to the treasury, and for many years Gordon Brown's main economic adviser - merged into the crowd. Which was just the way he wanted it.

The MP for Normanton in West Yorkshire had got the train down from his constituency in the morning. And immediately after the match he made the return journey to the home he shares with his wife, housing minister Yvette Cooper, and their three children.

In a sense he was born to occasions like this. His birth was due on February 18, 1967 when Norwich City played Manchester United at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup. His dad, Mike, a former lecturer at the University of East Anglia, decided to go to the match and risked missing the birth. But all turned out well. City famously won 2-1, and baby Ed arrived a week late on February 25. (So, he'll be 40 on Sunday.)

For almost 40 minutes, a comparable Cup upset seemed possible at Chelsea. It wasn't to be. But Mr Balls was in buoyant mood afterwards. “We played well, and that's the main thing”, he said.

His work commitments allow him to travel to Carrow Road only about five times a season, but he also gets to several of City's away matches in Yorkshire, Lancashire and London.

It's very much in the family. His father - an old pal of Norwich MP Ian Gibson - was with him on Saturday, and at half-time Ed was texting his brother Bill in Los Angeles with news of the match (only to discover he was watching it live on TV).

I spent about four hours with him. In all that time no-one said: 'You're that Ed Balls, aren't you?” There were no knowing looks, and no double-takes. He'd better enjoy it while he still can. It might not last much longer.

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