Why did Alan Clark manage to get away with affairs, traffic offences and being drunk at the despatch box, but the much-more-able Chris Huhne had to forfeit his cabinet place and his membership of the privy council over one speeding offence?
Why did Jack Profumo end up being liked, honoured and admired, when he had been unfaithful to his wife, endangered national security and lied to parliament? But, the glamorous and charming prime minister and three-times foreign secretary, Anthony Eden is still rated as the worst post-war prime minister because of the Suez crisis.
Why was John Major, as prime minister, regarded as grey and dull, but retired John Major is relaxed, humorous and well-liked.
Why did David Laws and Ron Davies suffer very different fates over the consequences of their private lives?
Why did the Iraq invasion turn so many people against the charming, open and clever Tony Blair?
The answer is the same in every case – honesty, and in most cases, excruciating honesty.
Alan Clark treated us to so much information in his diaries that we cannot believe that he had anything left to hide. Chris Huhne hid the truth about his traffic offence for too long and by then the consequences had ratcheted up.
In some ways the detail of the press coverage of Profumo’s affair and his lie to parliament may well have helped in the long run, as there is no detail still hidden. He died with his reputation high, after decades of charity work. He commented shortly before his death ‘You know, I have enjoyed my life’. Anthony Eden on the other hand lied to parliament over Suez and never admitted that he had done so, although documentary evidence now proves that he did.
John Major used to appear uncomfortable about his unusual background. No other prime minister had a father who was a trapeze artist and gnome manufacturer. Eventually, after he retired from parliament, by writing and talking about his exotic ancestry, John Major has given us a full, humorous and rather endearing picture of the person he really is.
David Laws tried to hide his relationship with his landlord, but when confronted about it, made an excruciatingly honest explanation and resigned from the cabinet immediately. He is now back in government. Ron Davies, for reasons which we can still only speculate about, had a ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common, which somehow involved his car being stolen. His ‘Emmental’ explanation, left everyone to imagine what the gaps in the story were all about. He did not come back into government.
Tony Blair had seemed trustworthy, open and honest until the issue of Iraq. His explanations for the invasion did not satisfy many people and Iraq hangs around the neck of his reputation almost as Suez does to Eden.
Admit, apologise, explain, go (quickly) – and your reputation may be redeemed. Deny, blame, avoid, hang on and be forced out and you will probably not be called again.
To survive in politics you don’t have to be perfect, you just need a high embarrassment threshold.