Richard North, 12/09/2004  

Not being a regular reader of The News of the World, it took a phone call this morning to alert me to this paper's latest scoop – spread across pages 8 and 9: "Sleaze at it again". Piers Merchant, ex MP and chief executive designate – currently campaign manager for UKIP at Hartlepool – is "having yet another torrid affair behind his long-suffering wife's back".

This, we understand, is by no means the only one – the man having acquired something of a sailor's reputation of a "girl in every port". So be it – the man's private life is his own - but people in high profile positions should have sense enough to be discreet. And to go into "a park bench clinch" with your mistress in a public park in Birmingham, where the "News of the Screws" can photograph you, is hardly discreet.

Why this matters is that Piers Merchant has not only his own reputation – tarnished as it is – in his hands. He also carries that of UKIP, which he represents, and it does the Party no good at all to have its name spread in such a manner across the sheets of a tabloid. Not least, it reflects badly on the judgment of Knapman, Farage and others, who were so keen to see this Tory re-tread appointed to the top administrative position in their party.

But of more practical significance, Piers – as campaign manager at the Hartlepool by-election - is custodian of the "pray-as-you-go" mobile – the sole means of communication with the party's campaign office in Hartlepool. Since the man has now gone into hiding, and this miracle of modern technology is switched off, one wonders how the diligent party workers of Hartlepool will run their campaign.

Longer-term, the publicity could provoke a backlash against the current party leadership, and Knapman in particular. Despite this Blog's earlier gloomy predictions about the fate of Kilroy-Silk's leadership bid, therefore, this could see Kilroy coming to the fore as "Mr Clean" – the only person in a position to drag UKIP out of the mire into which it is fast descending, and put it back on track.

Who would have though that things could change so quickly? But then, as Harold Wilson once said, "A week is a long time in politics".

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