The Prime Minister, the pig and the principles at stake

At least now we know why Kermit and Miss Piggy split up.

According to a tell-all book by Tory moneybags Lord Ashcroft, David Cameron had intimate contact with a deceased member of the porcine community during his time at Oxford. Cameron supposedly porked the piglet as part of an initiation ceremony for Piers Gaveston, an exclusive dining society.

When I joined the student paper at Glasgow University I had to skull five shots in five minutes. How the other half live.

Downing Street has said it will not comment on Ashcroft’s book, though PoliticsHome quotes a source dismissing the Piers Gaveston story as “nonsense”. The biography also claims that Cameron smoked marijuana at Christ Church college with future Spectator columnist James Delingpole. And people think the pig thing was his biggest error of judgement.

We might never know if the lurid story is true but it’s out there and Cameron will never live it down. We’re talking oinking noises at PMQs, Peppa Pig placards at public events, “snouts in the trough” puns galore. Newspaper diarists will pour over every state dinner menu for “pulled pork”, “jerk pork”, “sticky pork”. Thank God posh people don’t eat toad in the hole.

Cameron’s best bet might be to seek refuge in a kosher deli. In the West Bank. For about 50 billion years.

Lyndon Johnson is said to have instructed a campaign aide to spread a rumour that his opponent had carnal knowledge of swine. “Lyndon, you know he doesn’t do that,” the aide is reputed to have objected, whereupon Johnson replied: “I know; I just want to make him deny it.”

Sex scandals are nothing new in politics. Edwin Edwards, a politician so corrupt they made him governor of Louisiana four times, once quipped: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy”. The Prime Minister has raised the stakes somewhat.

If history repeats itself as farce, life imitates art without the gloss of irony. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror now looks grotesquely prescient. Everyone does things at uni that make the walk of shame even shamier but this is something else. The First Lord of the Treasury allegedly mounted a Sunday lunch. It’s a bit like finding out Anthony Eden dry-humped a giraffe but then again the aristocracy is like that.

“Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example,” mused Algy Moncrieff, “what on earth is the use of them?” The upper classes have always been reassuringly debauched; no one wants to be ruled over by a bunch of chinless moralists. Their depravity is the best thing the aristocracy has going for them. The middle classes are lights-off, socks-on, done-in-time-for-Gogglebox types; they lack the perverse imagination of the ruling classes. You could have trusted Mrs Thatcher with a pig.

The hypocrisies of this episode are boundless. The Corbynistas, who cry “smear” at every fresh revelation about Jeremy, jihad and the Jews, are gleefully retweeting a single-sourced claim from the Daily Mail. The Leveson ultras who long for a British press as tethered and deferential as the French media have thrown ethics to the wind. Your humble correspondent is clamouring for the high ground now but he was right there with the rest of you in the hours after the story broke. Twitter is a siren temptress to the smug and the snide.

The pig puns hog the limelight on social media but this isn’t a story about student degeneracy or even a PR nightmare. It is a tale, near-Iliadic in scale, of revenge. Lord Ashcroft is a long-time donor to the Conservative Party who broke with Cameron a number of years ago. By his own admission, Ashcroft was miffed that his political and financial support for the Tories had not resulted in a heavyweight government job.

He writes: “The role he had in mind was to be a junior whip in the Foreign Office. After putting my neck on the line for nearly ten years, both as party treasurer under William Hague between 1998 and 2001 and as deputy chairman between 2005 and 2010, and after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer. It would have been better had he offered me nothing at all.”

No one can doubt Lord Ashcroft’s commitment to the conservative cause, a dedication proven with his pocketbook. Before Ashcroft, the centre-right had no real organisational infrastructure outside the Tory Party, save for a few think tanks. The businessman funds websites like ConservativeHome and an extensive polling operation that, with investment and expansion, could come to rival the unspoken left-liberal coalition of unions, politicised charities and sections of the academy. He is owed the gratitude of right-wingers for that.

But the manner in which he has claimed his pound of flesh would seem to vindicate Cameron’s decision not to offer him high office. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Tory leader’s treatment of the peer, publishing this rumour looks mightily like a billionaire throwing a tantrum because he wasn’t allowed to buy himself a seat at the Cabinet table. (Someone should have reminded him of the scriptural injunction against casting pearls before swine.)

That is why Cameron deserves to survive these allegations, even if he will always be haunted by them. There are a number of principles at stake. Politicians must be allowed their student days — even really icky student days — or we’ll have a Parliament of sociology graduates telling us to check our privilege. Oxford posh boys don’t draw much sympathy but if their cloistered deviancies are hashtag fodder, where do we draw the line? An MP’s undergraduate threesomes? His fondness for stilettos? Her four abortions? Shaming is an irregular verb: I have a laugh. You humiliate. They are fair game.

A loftier precept looms large: A wealthy man cannot be allowed to mortify the Prime Minister from office simply because someone told him No. When the chortling dies down, and Twitter moves on to its next distraction, we will have to begin a serious conversation about the power of the mega-rich in Britain. If Lord Ashcroft felt entitledto a senior ministerial role because of his bulging wallet, then that is intolerable. It is a short walk from the Cabinet room to the Prime Minister’s office.

Cynics that we are, we just assume that tycoons are paying for influence or preferential treatment in government contracts. But if party donors have come to expect that they can buy an all-access pass to the executive, democracy and meritocracy are in more trouble than we thought. We’re being sold a pig in a poke.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © DFID by Creative Commons 2.0.

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