Wragg: it should be about the blackmail. Letter to the editor

P , Saturday Evening Post 1924-02-16–“Who Said Anything About Blackmail? I Was Just Going to Add That Whatever You Get, You’re Overpaid, for You’re the Stupidest Whippersnapper I’ve Ever Met” Illustration by Arthur William Brown. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1929.

Dear Editor

Much of the publicity about William Wragg and his indiscretion (notwithstanding the Conservative party’s best endeavours to suppress it) has tended to focus on the perils of modern social media. Surely, the blindingly obvious point is that the issue is blackmail, and blackmail is as old as time.

As a former civil servant, one of the fundamental issues around personal security clearance, I understood, was to establish whether a third party could exercise undue influence over you. This could be because of a weakness for alcohol, sex, gambling, or recreational drugs. Not so long ago, being gay would have been included. The issue was whether your behaviour might put you in a position where you could be manipulated into doing things to the benefit of that third party. Once coerced successfully for the first time, you would then be successfully hooked, with the threat of further exposure and blackmail to add to the leverage.

Use of the internet is merely the 21st century twist to an ancient practice. If you would hesitate to put up a picture of your genitals in the small ads window of your local newsagents, then it may not be a great idea to put it on the internet. All the opportunities for exploitation of a stupid decision follow just as remorselessly, whether the medium is the internet or a sheet of papyrus. 

The point is that another person or organisation gains leverage over you and can get you to work in their interest.

In many cases, the threat comes from foreign governments and the technique of the honey trap is the standard stuff of spy novels. Who can forget the image of Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, at Perugia airport in 2018, after a heavy night with the Lebedevs? How many Members of Parliament, or research institutes, have received questionable donations from oligarchs – or indeed from American far-right organisations? The answer is that we have very little information, and the current government has made sure that it stays that way. Whatever happened to the report on Russian interference in the 2016 referendum?

Political parties always need cash, and rewarding donors with knighthoods and peerages has long been a pretty painless way to raise money. Lloyd George was criticised for this a century ago and he was certainly not the first. This is surely one of the reasons why the House of Lords desperately needs reform. However, the Covid epidemic seems to have brought the purchase of influence to a new level. There seems to have been a ‘revolving door’, in which government contracts for PPE were passed to favoured suppliers, who then, apparently coincidentally, made donations to the Conservative party. The Good Law Project has been working hard to identify just how many contracts were placed through such suppliers.

Perhaps the quintessential form of leverage is the little black book, allegedly held in the Whips’ office. It is widely believed to be a source of dirt on individual MPs, to ensure that they remember which way to vote. It’s hardly a surprise that the Wragg story appears to be over a year old, enabling his now former party to apply influence before anyone else does. In fact, the Whips’ behaviour is a classic example of how to exercise pressure by knowing an MP’s indiscretions.  

Wragg is merely the latest example of many cases in which the Conservative party has set a very low standard for personal propriety – and then underachieved.

Do prospective MPs ever get any briefing on the security risks – both national and personal – to which they may expose themselves? Or are some individuals so arrogant and entitled that they believe that such things are beneath them?

Eric Gates