'Back to basics,' sex scandals give British tabloids a field day

February 16, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- "All this tosh in the newspapers reflects a rather bizarre English predilection for moral hysteria," said the senior Cabinet member in Prime Minister John Major's back-to-basics government.

News media reports on sexual peccadilloes that recur among Conservative politicians like bad dreams are the "tosh" Peter Lilley, the social security secretary, was talking about.

"The press has found this is a good opportunity to pretend there is some political reason for putting the gossip column on the front page instead of on the middle pages," Mr. Lilley told a group of foreign journalists yesterday.

Tales of Conservative sexual slippage have tarnished the government's family and morality "back-to-basics" political theme. Conservative politicians have become downright gun-shy since various unhappy sexual indiscretions blasted the careers of their colleagues and even claimed the life of one up-and-coming Conservative "high-flier" after the "back-to-basics" platform had been adopted and ballyhooed.

Britain's tabloid press counts eight victims.

The latest is a 47-year-old member of Parliament and Methodist lay-reader who claims he was seduced by his 22-year-old researcher into "kissing and cuddling."

The most embarrassing and perhaps even tragic was the Conservative parliamentarian found dead in his kitchen wearing women's stockings and not much else except a wire around his neck. He died of "auto-erotic asphyxiation," a form of solo sex which involves cutting off one's air supply.

And the latest news reports yesterday said the Conservative Party was putting pressure on gay members of Parliament to marry.

"Certainly there's is no edict that has gone out from the Conservative central office to that effect," Mr. Lilley said. "I'm certain of that."

"There has always been a certain desire among Conservative constituency associations to get two for price of one. A wife is often a great boon," he said in what may have been a joke. He's married.

He conceded that the series of stories was not doing the party any good.

"But I suspect it will be more damaging, I regret to say, to the press than the government in the long run," he said. "The respect in which the newspapers of this country are held will be diminished if they play along with it. That's up to them."

Recent polls show that neither the press nor the government is held in particularly high esteem in Great Britain.

Many in the Conservative Party have said it's time to dump the "B-to-B" idea. But Mr. Lilley stood loyally with Mr. Major's plan to stay the course. He called "back to basics" a unifying theme in the government.

"We're concentrating on things that matter to ordinary people," Mr. Lilley said. "The basic needs, concerns and values of the British people."

"Obviously, one of the values is personal responsibility," he said. "That's perhaps where it has a moral dimension, personal responsibility."

"That means people are responsible for their own lives, their own sexual standards, and so on," he said. "So, far from it being telling them in detail what they should do in the bedroom, we were saying that is a matter of personal responsibility for you to live up to your high ideals."

Mr. Lilley complained that the press has "invented a sort of straw man, some moral crusade, and then condemns you for not living up to the standards of it."

Mr. Lilley himself preceded the prime minister's back-to-basics speech at the October party congress with an attack on feckless single mothers getting child-support benefits, concerns which fall within his purview. He had to beat a hasty retreat even before the assault on B-to-B began. He now talks about "lone parents."

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