Pushing the murky moral world of public affairs to the Max

THE worst moment for an after-dinner speaker is the point when a silver teaspoon is clanged off a glass for silence.

It’s the worst moment because, if it’s an all-male gathering, by that point they’re well tore and would rather talk among themselves about Blogsie’s great try against the Axe Murderers in 1963 than quiet down to listen to a stranger.

But, even if it’s not an all-male gathering, there’s the Previous Speaker to cope with.

The Previous Speaker sometimes has a speech the thickness of the Yellow Pages to get through, incorporating references to every advance, setback, new extension or unexpected death within the organisation in the previous 12 months.

And, by golly, he’s going to get through it, even if the diners go to sleep face down in their Tiramasu or the waiters throw trays of glasses at each other in the adjoining room.

Sometimes, the Yellow Pages speech is a hard sell about the guest speaker: she spoke after one month, walked after two months and had to be told to sit down and shut up after three months. Last week, at a dinner, I was the guest speaker. The man introducing me was not given to the Yellow pages approach to introductions. He kept it short, simple, and to the point, even if it was the wrong point.

“Our guest speaker tonight needs no introduction,” he told the diners. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome ... Terry Keane.”

The indrawn breaths nearly sucked me off the podium. Half the diners clapped. The other half tried to restrain them, clearly believing applause for the wrong person might make things worse.

The man himself was first mystified, and then, as his reproachful wife whispered to him, mortified.

God love him, he was just the latest in an unending procession, some of whom just stick a wrong surname onto an unusual first name, some of whom genuinely believe the two Terrys are one, and that the one was CJ’s mistress. I don’t see it as a slap-the-hand-to-the-forehead type of insult.

Referred sexiness is better than none. Vicarious living in the mistress business is as near as I’m ever going to get to the real thing.

That career option did, however, present itself to a woman who, as a civil servant, was anonymous when she served as an assistant to Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.

Anonymity departed when it emerged in recent days that she’d also had a two-year affair with the man: her name is Tracey Temple.

When the story broke, Tracey took herself to Max Clifford, asking him to do a deal with some newspaper to tell her story. Max Clifford has a considerable track record in this regard and is reputed to have won her in the region of £250,000 (€360,000), which, even after Clifford takes his cut, means Tracey’s going to be sitting pretty.

Financially, at least.

Here’s how it works, according to Clifford’s own book. Just in case any Irish PR agencies see future potential in this area.

Clifford’s cunning plan always starts with meeting the mistress.

He has to believe in her and like her before he’ll work with her. One wonders how often he has turned down a cash cow (pardon the expression) because he didn’t, on meeting her, find her to be a likeable and upstanding person.

He gets the story from her. Then contacts a newspaper he knows will buy, agrees a price and, working with them, sends the woman in a luxury hotel somewhere. The newspaper freights in its writers, together with a TV camera — to get TV footage to generate supportive publicity — and, sustained by good room service food, they go at it, seeking out the juiciest encounters and, if possible, the souvenir photographs.

In Prescott’s case, this would have been going on last week, after he had told his wife and sons, as well as his boss, Tony Blair, what he’d been up to.

If he had the wit to use that grim time to take advice from a good PR person, that PR person would have concentrated on two separate aspects of the issue.

The first was probing the external realities. Meaning: Mrs Prescott has, thus far, taken a “Sod the media, don’t resign, I’ll stand by you” position. How robust is that position? Ditto, Tony Blair hasn’t demanded Prescott’s resignation. What could change that?

The second aspect to be probed is realistic appraisal of what Tracey, the mistress, was telling the journalists. In my experience, when a business executive or politician knows they’re about to be outed for something they’d prefer not to be outed for, they develop a dangerous amnesia and an even more dangerous hope that decency will prevail and that the former lover will not feel the need to share the more pukemaking details of their mutual encounters.

It never works out that way, and an adequate response cannot be prepared if the person who’s stepped out of line doesn’t force themselves to come clean in advance of their former lover doing it for them.

If, for example, the Prescotts’ collective wish is to keep him in power, then they need to be able to prove that whatever the 67-year-old got up to when he wasn’t punching egg-wielding protesters during his election canvassing, he: a) didn’t damage his delivery on his brief and b) will not, in future, impair his capacity to do so.

The central moral consideration is betrayal. In other words: if this man would betray his wife of 44 years, can he be trusted not to betray his prime minister, political party, government department and electorate? The short answer, based on history, is Yes.

Politicians ranging from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Mussolini, have always had mistresses, frequently drawn from their support staff, because they’re handy. Familiarity breeds content.

The difference between mistresses in the past and mistresses in the present is that, in the past, media were less intrusive and profit wasn’t so much of an issue. Not to mention the fact that some mistresses grew in stature, rather than diminishing in stature, as time went on.

It was, let us not forget, Clara Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress, who stuck by him to the end, and so it was she, not his wife, who ended up dead and hanging upside down beside him, like two beef carcasses, for public display in a garage.

Today, a lover who faces being discarded can at least boost their pension fund by telling all. Some would suggest that, since it isn’t legal for a serial killer to make money by publishing a book about how he (or, less frequently, she) did it, it isn’t acceptable for a discarded mistress to further embarrass the faithful spouse by spewing salacious details about bedroom goings on with the unfaithful spouse.

Most people agree with that suggestion. Which didn’t stop millions of them, yesterday, from buying a paper they may not normally buy in order to read about the Prescott affair.

Public and private morality, like public statements and private actions, so often contradict each other.

In politicians. And in non-politicians.

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