Magazine article The Spectator

How Low Will They Go?

Magazine article The Spectator

How Low Will They Go?

Article excerpt

BECKENHAM'S Conservatives do not believe all they read in the papers. Some leading local Tories are convinced John Major is going to win the general election and they do not believe Piers Merchant should be dumped as their MP. A tense meeting of Beckenham's 46-member Conservative constituency association executive committee last Saturday voted overwhelmingly to give Mr Merchant a second chance. This was despite press photographs of their parliamentary representative in seemingly compromising positions with a `nightclub hostess', aged 17.

It was not, however, a case of Beckenham's sturdy middle classes suddenly displaying an appreciation of the louche life, although perhaps some in the association may have been thinking, We are not going to be made to look out of date by that posh crowd in Kensington and Chelsea (who recently selected Alan Clark to stand as their Tory candidate).

The reality was that Mr Merchant faced about one and a half hours of questions and 'statements' from his party faithful, none of whom gave the impression this was the sort of thing Beckenham wants from its MP. Many of the statements, which took up most of Saturday's meeting, were of the `You've been an idiot, but we forgive you' variety. Like a ticking-off from one's mother on being caught fibbing, it cannot have been a pleasant experience. All that disappointment - made so much worse because Beckenham decided to leave the moral judgments to Mr Merchant's family, and told him so.

Mr Merchant was fortunate, in the meeting's mind, because his chief attacker was the Sun. As one executive member said, `The heat of the meeting was directed at the media and the Sun. And if there's one thing we can't stand in Beckenham, it's the tabloids.'

Confirming the committee's opinion, it was also suggested that the Sun may have deliberately set out to trap this particular Tory MP because the paper has a personal grudge against him. And it was clear that executive members had pored over the hated tabloid photographs for comfort. `It looks like he's touching her backside in one picture, but it could just be a handswing. And in the grass both his hands are by his side.' Such talk inspired a number of questions about whether Mr Merchant is planning a libel action against the paper. But there is no news on that. Despite the brouhaha, however, only one person at last Saturday's meeting asked how or whether the affair was going to affect the party nationally. And not one of the numerous statements was a direct attack on the MP.

In fact most of the statements had to do with the amount of admirable work Mr Merchant had done for the constituency. The executive emphasised to each other that they were making the right decision to stand by him. According to one committee member, `The overriding point is that he is such a good local MP. He writes 60 to 70 letters a day. He helps up to 300 people a week. And he's in the top ten for attendance at the Commons.'

The media onslaught clearly operated in Mr Merchant's favour. No one tells Beckenham Tories who to select or deselect, and it is believed in the constituency that their stand represents a 'watershed' in the sleaze campaign.

They may just be right. On a national basis, it is becoming clear that there is a gap between the political and media `opinion-formers' and those whose opinions are supposedly being formed. Incredible as it may seem in this prurient country, which boasts the News of the World as its topselling paper, the public is not aroused by sleaze - not as an election issue anyway. Robert Worcester, chairman of the polling organisation MORI, said, `The public is not interested in sleaze . …

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