LONDON -- British sex scandals have mostly been Tory business, with an upper-class patina of perversity. The men of the wealthy class -- the "toffs," as the English call them -- always feel entitled to the ladies, who are lured by power and old money. Tories go to uppercrust schools, grow up to the taste of champagne, marry thoroughbreds and can afford expensive call girls.
Labor scandals tend to be about money because Labor politicians don't have as much of it. It's a class thing. Oswald Mosley famously urged "Vote Labor, Sleep Tory." (We have a version of it in Washington: "Date Democratic, Marry Republican." Everybody has to grow up.)
But such distinctions are old (top) hat and out-of-date bowlers. The latest sex scandal is about New Labor, and it has an arriviste vulgarity more of Bill Clinton than John Profumo, the Conservative minister for war who shared a mistress with a senior naval attache at the Soviet Embassy in 1961.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, at 68 well into his goatish years, has confessed to a two-year affair with Tracey Temple, his diary secretary, 45, a blonde divorcee who went public with the lurid details in the Sunday Mail. She told the upmarket tabloid that she had indulged in frequent sexual liaisons with her boss behind an open door in his office while his staff of civil servants worked nearby.
The public outrage, of course, doesn't focus on the sex, which every political ally and enemy bends over backwards to call a "private matter." Privately, of course, the sex is all anyone talks about. The public question is whether Mr. Prescott broke "Civil Service" rules. The Tories put out an official guide of regulations that instructs staffers in the deputy prime minister's office against the "improper use" of workspace during "official time." British euphemism aside, it's hard to characterize hanky panky as proper use.
The devil, of course, is in the juicy details of the sniggering factor. Who can keep a straight face when a Tory MP in the House of Commons asks the deputy prime minister, "What steps will you be taking to ensure that staff working under you are not subject to sexual harassment?"
The real victim, as always, is the long-suffering "wife of." Pauline Prescott's photograph has been splashed across the front pages of the tabloids, too. If the sex scandal reflects the prosperity and power of New Labor, Mrs. Prescott is the New Wife of New Labor. Old Labor women, writes Petronella Wyatt, the Sunday Mail's tart Tory gossip, "resembled the leaders of the female Soviet tank corps. This included MPs' wives who were usually such fearsome battleaxes that their husbands were terrified to stray even if tempted."
Pauline Prescott, by contrast, is chic and fashionably coiffed. The tart Tory gossip adds insult to humiliation, asking how such an attractive woman could marry "a fat man with rheumy eyes and pockmarks that pitted his skin like some diabolical tattoo." The "wife of," alas, is not entitled to the aphrodisiac of power.
It's not clear whether John Prescott can keep the dreaded "100 percent support" of Tony Blair. He endured a second blow, this one from a croquet mallet, when a tabloid photographer caught him playing croquet on a workday on the grounds of Dorneywood, the 21-bedroom country house that is a perk of his office. The photographs further testify to a New Labor sensibility, where the soft leisure life of the toff has overtaken the image of the working stiff. To staunch the criticism, Mr. Prescott relinquished the mansion, albeit reluctantly. The picture worth a thousand slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had done its damage.
"I am old enough to remember what the Labor Party once stood for and what pride we had recognizing the ideals of our representations," writes a typical angry blogger. "No more!" The tempest in the sterling silver teapot arrived just as David Cameron, the new Tory leader, is changing the image of his party from stuffy boorishness to "compassionate conservatism." He has been Tory leader for only six months, but recent polls put the Tories at 39 percent against Labor's diminishing 32 percent.
It's a long, long time before the next election, and more changes will come before Tony Blair steps down with the name of his successor. Predictions are a waste of time. But croquet, anyway, is moving away from cucumber sandwiches, expansive lawns and country manor houses and onto tidy backyards. Sales of croquet sets are soaring.
But you can bet your English pounds that no Tory politician will be caught dead with a croquet mallet or a secretary behind an office door. Well, not with the croquet mallet, anyway.