Penitence: Aitken's Lesson for New Labour

Article excerpt

I pentiti is the name for Mafia turn-coats. Members of Cosa Nostra all their lives, the pentiti (Italian for penitents) usually see the light only when they're in trouble. Behind bars, interrogated and threatened with a life sentence, they suddenly find themselves ripe for conversion. Repentance wins them a lighter sentence (sometimes freedom) and loads of publicity.

The penitent Tory follows a similar trajectory. Once a paid-up member of the Conservative clan--rooted in the Home Counties rather than Sicily, but with a moral code no less ingrained than omerta--he comes up against a little local difficulty. This may be perjury, outing as a former gay or a bit of plotting against the party leader. The penitent Tory submits to public humiliation with a set jaw and grim expression--and then capitalises on the crisis by undergoing a transformation that wins him plaudits, publicity and the sympathy of even former foes.

Look at Jonathan Aitken: indicted for perjury, he spent seven months in Belmarsh and Standford Hill prisons. There, the former liar, playboy and renegade underwent a Damascene conversion and became a happy-clappy Christian. His very public mea culpas--a succession of chest-beating articles appeared in the Tory press--earned him a new wife, the sympathy of Alpha course addicts and, gradually, of 200 members of his former constituency party, Thanet South.

Look, too, at Michael Portillo. After failing to oust William Hague as party leader and admitting to having had gay sex as a young man, he abruptly dropped his former SAS-loving, gung-ho image to adopt a softer, humble, penitent persona. The new Portillo opted out of the parliamentary snake-pit to star in a series of soft-edged telly programmes, most conspicuously his recent visit (camera crew in tow) to a sink estate where he winsomely shared the pain of being a hard-up single mum. …