By Matthew Ashton
Today sees Chris Huhne being released from prison after two months. For most people, trying to re-establish themselves as productive members of society after a stint in prison is pretty tricky. Not only is there the social stigma that goes along with being detained at her Majesty's pleasure, there is also the huge stain it leaves on your CV. In the normal course of events politicians rarely go to jail; not necessarily because they have more virtuous characters than the rest of us, but because they can usually afford better lawyers and character witnesses (and being part of the political/legal establishment probably doesn't hurt either).
However the last few years has seen a small avalanche of MPs standing in the dock and being sent off to serve hard time. Six went down in 2011 alone. Subsequently many of them got to discover that prison is possibly not the life of luxury they might have previously thought. Of course for some of them it's quite a nostalgic experience. Being shut up 24 hours a day behind decaying Victorian stone walls with terrible food and violent members of staff must remind them of their time at boarding school.
Chris Huhne isn't the first MP to be sent to prison and almost certainly won't be the last. John Stonehouse, Lord Archer and Jonathan Aiken have all been there before him and emerged blinking into the light. Luckily if you're an ex-MP, prison is less likely to be the end of your hopes and dreams than for us regular mortals. Today it's easier than ever before for politicians to rehabilitate themselves. Not as elected officials per se, but certainly as part of the political/media world.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Most obviously is the fact that most of them are fairly well financially off to begin with and have a wide support network of famous and important chums to back them up when things get tough. There are also a couple of useful rules for them to follow based on the above mentioned cases.
The first is 'never stop apologising'. While the British public might enjoy kicking people while they're down, they're also surprisingly forgiving when people admit their sins. There's nothing that gets their backs up more though than an ex-MP who keeps popping up to claim that they did nothing wrong and that they've been subject to a monstrous injustice.
Also having a sense of humour about it helps. The British love it if you're willing to laugh at yourself. Even if you feel that you were wrongly jailed, half an hour on Have I Got News For You letting Paul and Ian take jabs at you, combined with a few self-depreciating one-liners, will do more for your standing than any amount of charity work.
It helps if the politician has committed a sin that the public can identify with. MPs jailed for expenses fraud are going to get short-shrift as the public, quite rightly, saw it as a crime against them. Chris Huhne on the other hand is possibly going to get more sympathy as a significant proportion of the population have received speeding tickets at one time or another (and considered ways of getting out of them).
It also helps Huhne that, with the exception of the speeding in the first place (which is obviously a very bad thing), his crime didn't really hurt anyone except for him and his family. Even in that case it works to his advantage as there was quite a lot of sympathy generated when the text messages between him and his son were presented in court. While Huhne brought the situation on himself, he's paid a much bigger emotional price than his few short months in jail. Unfortunately there is also a certain section of the population, largely driven by sexism, who will feel sympathetic towards Huhne because of their negative feeling about his ex-wife.
So if Huhne follows the usual pattern, he’ll mostly likely spend a brief stint away from the cameras, probably performing charity work, before popping up on TV as a pundit or talking-head offering his thoughts on the current political situation. Also when the next politician is jailed his views will be quickly sought for the best survival strategies while 'inside'. It doesn't hurt that in our increasingly media obsessed world notoriety has become confused with fame. If nothing else presents itself there's always Celebrity Big Brother.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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