As a political leader nears the end of his period in power, he is likely to loosen up in interviews and perhaps even in the way he behaves. He might admit that, early in his career, he was too eager to be liked. Or he could become inappropriately flirtatious with younger women. He might even confess to having had a few mistresses on the side during his younger days.
Thanks to Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Jacques Chirac, we have recently been treated to a masterclass in the different types of political frankness in Europe. Blair confessed to John Humphrys that, when he first became Prime Minister, he might have been rather too nice for the job. Berlusconi’s misbehaviour has been rather more interesting. Last month he made a clumsy pass at a couple of young beauty queens and was subsequently obliged to make a public apology to his wife.
President Chirac has always had a somewhat unlikely reputation as a womaniser – his former chauffeur once wrote that “to an almost sickening degree, Chirac has had party militants, secretaries and all those with whom he spent five busy minutes”. Now, in the dusk of his career, he has confirmed in a book of interviews that, as he puts it rather more delicately than his chauffeur, “there have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible”.
Significantly, none of this senior-citizen inappropriateness has harmed either man’s reputation. Berlusconi’s embarrassment has not been for leering and lunging at showgirls 40 years younger than himself, but for the mild humiliation of having to apologise to his wife in a statement to the press.
Chirac’s confession – or boast – has caused hardly a ripple in a country where presidential randiness has been virtually obligatory since 1899, when Félix Faure suffered a fatal stroke while being given a blow-job by his mistress Marguerite Steinheil (or “Pompe Funèbre”, as she later became known). François Mitterand was at it throughout his political life and had a second family, while Giscard d’Estaing was also rumoured to have made regular, furtive visits to girlfriends.
The infidelities of these political boulevardiers may not have added greatly to the dignity of their office but then neither, it could be argued, did that famous moment when, the day before the 2005 election, Mr and Mrs Blair afforded readers of The Sun an all-too-intimate glimpse into their beautiful marriage with the famous five-times-a-night boast.
In spite of being more sex-obsessed than most nations, the British seem to have a powerful yearning for marital perfection in their political leaders. While most countries accept that politicians are at least as human as others – probably more so, when it comes to sex – we treat their adulterous moments as a vulgar joke (John Prescott, David Mellor) or as a matter for shame, misery and bitterness (Paddy Ashdown, Robin Cook, John Major). So a fantasy version of married life becomes an important political accessory for the British politician and the Prime Minister ends up talking about his middle-aged sex life with his wife. Even the Americans are more grown up: when Laura Bush was asked about her husband at home, she complained that he went to sleep at nine, leaving her to watch Desperate Housewives alone.
Berlusconi making a fool of himself with beauty queens, Chirac shiftily confessing to past infidelities, Bush snoring away in his pyjamas: these are scenes from everyday life: ridiculous, embarrassing, banal. None of them, with the possible exception of the Bush confession, would be acceptable in British public life.
The problem with obliging British politicians to behave better and have happier marriages than the rest of the population is that the only ones who can cope with it are the bloodless, emotionally frozen androids one can see being interviewed on Newsnight most evenings. There is no place for normality any more. The media, so merciless in their mockery and disapproval when a politician falters in his private life, appeal to that unattractive combination of prurience and disapproval in which our nation seems to specialise. There needs to be a change in public mood, a move towards the more grown-up attitude to marriage, which the Americans, French and Italians take for granted.
Nobody wants decadence on the front benches, with pin-striped Mick Jaggers sidling around the Palace of Westminster in search of fresh conquests, but it is time to move beyond the absurdly idealised model of domestic harmony which is so often mistaken for moral integrity. Once we have a few politicians who can make fools of themselves like the rest of us, without paying for it with their careers, then we will have a kinder and more sensible manner of government.