I can write about this notorious minefield of pride with some inside knowledge because this was where I spent decades of my life “climbing towards the top of the greasy pole” as Disraeli described political ambition.
It was where I had a spectacular fall from grace, plummeting from rising Cabinet Minister to imprisoned convict. I now describe my downward spiral of this crash as a descent involving defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy, and jail. The ingredients in this royal flush of crises were caused by pride.
Without recognising the fault line in my personal and political character (a common failing in many prideful people) I was climbing well on Disraeli’s greasy pole in the 1990s.
I was in my fifth term as an elected Member of Parliament. I had held two portfolios as a Minister of the Crown. One was Minister of State for Defence and the other was the powerful Cabinet post of Chief Secretary for the Treasury. To make my head swell further I was quite frequently being tipped to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and as a potential successor to Prime Minister John Major.
The political graveyards are littered with the long-forgotten corpses of ex-future Prime Ministers. So, these transitory labels should have made a wise man humble.
In fact, it did quite the reverse. A combination of what Shakespeare in Hamlet calls ‘the insolence of office’ and in Macbeth ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’, gave me a surfeit of hubris. Pride is the deadliest of sins, and I was bursting with it. Politically I began to believe that I could walk on water. I took myself far too seriously, especially when I was made the target of a campaign by the Guardian.
It does not matter now what the Guardian said in their attacks, because all feelings of resentment about them have long since left me. Suffice it to say that, in a long series of articles, they made a number of allegations against me, some of which were true, some of which were untrue, and all of which were given a strongly negative spin. In the face of this campaign I was full of prideful anger and went for the journalists’ jugular. I initiated a lawsuit for defamation and announced my libel action in a ferocious television speech which contained the peroration,
‘I will cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth’.
These were recklessly insensitive words of pride which came back to haunt me.
Where was I as a Christian when I was riding high as a politician?
To put it simply, I called myself a Christian without actually being one. I was strong on the externals. I went to church regularly; I supported Christian causes and was a church warden at St. Margaret’s Westminster – the Parliamentary church. However, I do not think I had understood the simple truth that being a Christian has little to do with external appearances and everything to do with an internal commitment to Christ’s teachings.
I probably bore a disturbing resemblance to the Pharisee in the Bible’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who go up to the temple to pray. Even if I did not boast about my external piety quite as loudly as the Pharisee did, the humility of the Tax Collector was far removed from me. I was certainly not saying ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’, nor was I doing the will of the Father, especially when it came back to the libel case. In order to win it, I did something that was against the will of the Father: I told a lie.
It did not seem at that time a terribly important lie, at least in relation to the lies I was accusing others of telling about me. It was a lie about who paid a £900 hotel bill of mine at the Ritz Hotel in Paris while I had been a government minister. I told this lie. I told it on oath in my evidence in court. To my eternal shame, I even got my wife and daughter to back me up with witness statements supporting my lie. But then my opponents ambushed me in the middle of the trial with clear documentary evidence that I had told a lie on oath. My credibility as a witness was shattered.
I had to withdraw the libel case. And within twenty-four hours my whole life was shattered. The rising Cabinet Minister had impaled himself on his own sword of truth with explosive and apocalyptic consequences.
I was prosecuted for perjury, pleaded guilty at my trial in the Old Bailey and by June 1999 I was in a prison van heading for HMP Belmarsh to serve an 18-month prison sentence.
Having proved the truth of the old saying “Pride comes before a fall” I had plenty of time to reflect on how it happened, how it could have been avoided, and how I might prevent this deadly sin from resurfacing in my life.