OPINION - Mark Menzies and the Tory scandals: sensational fun, but pity us poor voters

 (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA Wire)
(Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA Wire)

There is no getting away from Karl Marx’s gag about history beginning as tragedy and ending as farce. When the only thing we can think about when it comes to the Government is a mesmerising sex scandal, we really are in John Major 1997 territory.

As scandals go, this is a good one, featuring financial impropriety as well as, um, bad judgment. Last December, Mark Menzies, an MP no one has ever heard of, allegedly phoned an elderly local Tory party volunteer at 3.15am to tell her that he needed £5,000 “as a matter of life and death” because he was being locked up in a flat against his will by “bad people”. The sum, risen to £6,500, was paid by his constituency office manager by cashing in her ISA. Another paid hundreds of pounds of his savings to pick up Mr Menzies, it is claimed; most of us would happily have consigned him to his fate. Menzies denies any wrongdoing.

It gets better. It turns out that Mr Menzies, who previously resigned as a ministerial aide over claims he paid for a male escort, repaid his benefactors out of Tory campaign funds which he had earlier used for private health care.

The tragedy in all this is that it features some of those individuals, the grassroots constituency workers, many of them elderly, on whom the party system depends; people who do the campaigning on behalf of the likes of Mr Menzies.

When the only thing we can think with the Government is a mesmerising sex scandal, we are in 1997 territory

The affair, coming as it does so soon after the William Wragg honeytrap business — blackmailed, he handed over the personal contact details of his colleagues — is just the latest element of the coming catastrophe. As with John Major, when the electorate is too busy laughing to be indignant about the big stuff, you’re doomed.

With Major, we didn’t know the half of it; if his affair with Edwina Currie had emerged at the time, the metaphor of a landslide would hardly have sufficed for the result.

No one thinks Rishi Sunak has sinned in that fashion, but he lacks even the affection that there was for Major, with his engagingly garrulous brother, Terry, and the Private Eye persona of the PM tucking his shirt in his underpants.

Successful governments shrug off scandals — though Major’s would have taken Mr Menzies’s one far more seriously; with doomed governments, it’s just one more thing to add to the charge sheet. A poll published today suggests that the Tories now lag behind Labour on defence, tax, immigration and ... Brexit. If you made a list of all the things Tory voters didn’t vote for, but got, over the last 14 years, it’s hard to know where you’d stop. Whatever you think of Sunak banning future fag sales to anyone 14 or under (my 17-year-old daughter says she’d emigrate if it applied to her), it’s not a policy Winston Churchill would have warmed to. And that was the centrepiece of the PM’s conference speech.

There’s lots of small telling stuff: things a previous Conservative government would have recognised as just not-Conservative. We came within a whisker, for instance, of losing ticket offices at stations with ministers standing by; it was only a heroic campaign by the disabled that stopped it. And what about a postage stamp costing over a pound last year? And this year’s reveal from the Royal Mail — leave aside the Post Office and Mr Bates — that it may or may not deliver second class post every two or three days? Ministers just didn’t care.

Leave aside the succession of almost heroically rubbish prime minsters since David Cameron. Previously Lord North held the unchalleged position of the worst prime minister ever — and he could blame the American War of Independence. But after the Tories gave us Theresa May, “Partygate” Boris, Liz Truss and now Sunak, Lord North’s baton has passed on.

How about the actual charge sheet, the big things? The Tories lost it on sound money with Cameron’s quantitative easing (remember?). And that’s before you get to immigration. There’s only one figure you need to remember: the 740,000 net who came to Britain in 2022, that is, nearly three quarters of a million in one year.

The big difference, of course, between this impending Tory implosion — at the last count there were 63 Tories who aren’t standing at the next election, but give it time — and 1997 is of course that Sir Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair, one of the great political communicators. No one would say as much about Sir Keir. Some 45 per cent of respondents in the poll mentioned earlier do not want him as PM. This election will be won by default.

Voters can take what fun they can from Tory scandals. Because the politics on offer right now is a matter of the least worst option rather than being spoilt for choice. Not a happy scenario, is it?

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist