British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns over Romantic Affair

David Mellor, a member of British prime minister John Major’s cabinet, became embroiled in scandal when actor Antonia de Sancha detailed her affair with Mellor in the popular tabloid newspaper The People. Mellor’s problems worsened when the press reported he received two free vacations, one from a daughter of an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mellor resigned soon after the story broke.

Summary of Event

When conservative politician John Major succeeded the equally conservative Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher as Great Britain’s prime minister in 1990, he promoted arts minister David Mellor to a cabinet post, first as chief secretary to the treasury (1990-1992) then to the newly created National Heritage Department as its secretary in April, 1992. The British public was not sure of this new department’s function, and when it became clear its responsibilities included sports and the leisure industry, Mellor was dubbed “minister for fun.” One of his first actions was to try to curb press invasions of privacy. The popular press, therefore, became increasingly hostile toward him. [kw]Mellor Resigns over Romantic Affair, British Cabinet Member David (Sept. 24, 1992)
Mellor, David
Major, John
[p]Major, John;and David Mellor[Mellor]
Mellor, David
Major, John
[p]Major, John;and David Mellor[Mellor]
[g]Europe;Sept. 24, 1992: British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns over Romantic Affair[02600]
[g]England;Sept. 24, 1992: British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns over Romantic Affair[02600]
[c]Sex;Sept. 24, 1992: British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns Over Romantic Affair[02600]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 24, 1992: British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns Over Romantic Affair[02600]
[c]Government;Sept. 24, 1992: British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns over Romantic Affair[02600]
[c]Politics;Sept. 24, 1992: British Cabinet Member David Mellor Resigns over Romantic Affair[02600]
Sancha, Antonia de

Mellor had graduated from Cambridge University and trained as a lawyer until 1972. He became a member of Parliament (MP) for Putney, London, in 1979, the same year Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister. He served in a number of junior ministerial posts under Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher, beginning in 1981, although unlike his friend and contemporary, Major, he never attained cabinet status in his appointments. Mellor’s most important office was as arts minister in 1990.

The popular press around this time was beginning to sense an increasing hostility by the public toward politicians in power. Major, too, seemed above reproach, though events showed later that he was not. So the press began private investigations of many of the Conservative Party MPs, especially those with some office. During the next two years, more than twenty Conservative politicians were forced to resign over press allegations. A number of libel Libel cases cases were contested, and several inquiries were set up to investigate various allegations, such as illegal arms sales to Iraq;arms purchases Iraq. Although some of the allegations were disproved, the period became known for “government sleaze,” as it was termed.

Mellor was the first politician exposed in this series of scandals that, many have argued, erupted for several reasons. Some believed the prime minister was too lenient in cases of marital unfaithfulness. Others said the press was out of control in its intrusiveness. Still others said the public believed the Conservatives had been in power too long and were growing corrupt and out of touch with the people. Each argument had some merit. Certainly, though, the scandals showed that no longer could MPs expect their private lives to remain private.

In July, 1992, the prime minister was warned that the Sunday tabloid newspaper People, The (newspaper)
The People was about to unleash a well-documented account of Mellor having a romantic affair with a little-known film actor, Antonia de Sancha. The story ran on July 19. A reporter from the paper had convinced Sancha’s landlord to bug her apartment, and the reporter was able to listen in on her telephone calls, which included calls with Mellor. The People’s editor Bill Hagerty defended the legality of the paper’s action in the name of public interest, a defense Mellor had been working to limit. In fact, it proved to be perfectly legal to bug one’s own property (as the landlord did). The actor reportedly was paid sixty thousand dollars for her story, and the details she supplied were sometimes quite lurid. Hagerty, following attacks on his professional integrity, would later say that Mellor’s resignation was the first “decent thing” Mellor had accomplished for some time.

Prime Minister Major took the advice of his cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, who assured Major that no national security had been breached through the affair, and that the people most hurt were Mellor’s own wife, Judith, and his children. Major, therefore, rejected all calls for firing Mellor. However, during the summer recess of Parliament, with little other interesting news, the popular press kept digging up Mellor’s private life, and by September it had unearthed a few more details.

The first of these discoveries was that Mellor had received a Spanish holiday from Mona Bauwens, the daughter of Jaweed al-Ghussein, the treasurer of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Palestine Liberation Organization The second discovery was Mellor’s receipt of a similar holiday, paid for by the ruler of the United Arab Emirates state of Abu Dhabi. These gifts clearly were of national interest. Major again consulted Butler, but the 1922 committee, comprising Conservative backbench MPs and chaired by Sir Marcus Fox, already had met on the issue and insisted on Mellor’s resignation. On September 24, Mellor handed in his resignation, which Major accepted with reluctance. Mellor’s resignation letter avoided any mention of personal shame for past actions.


Mellor’s reputation had been tarnished and his career ended because of not only his affair but also his acceptance of the travel gifts. Major’s government was tarnished as well. The press, having sensed its own power along with Major’s vulnerability, pursued a number of other government ministers. Despite Major’s protestations that his administration, and his party, had a policy of decency, the press considered his administration hypocritical. Efforts to suppress the freedom of the press withered away because of this assumption of hypocrisy. It could be argued that the stunning defeat of the Conservative government five years later at the hands of Tony Blair’s Labour Party took some of its origins from this seemingly insignificant incident involving Mellor.

Mellor himself failed to hold government office again and was finally defeated in the 1997 election, though he was asked to be part of the new Labour government’s Football Task Force from 1997 to 1999. However, his legal career continued, as he had been named a Queen’s Counsel in 1987. After Mellor left office, his interest in the arts and in sport led to radio jobs with the British Broadcasting Corporation and to journalistic work. Ironically, one of his jobs would be as a columnist with The People, the very newspaper that had discredited him five years before. The public was then quite forgiving of him. However, his marriage came to an end in 1995.

The sexual improprieties of office-holding politicians remained under the unforgiving scrutiny of the popular press and the British general public from the time Mellor’s affair came to light in 1992. Even Major could not resist commenting on the affairs of officeholders when he wryly quoted Jack Lang, a French minister of culture, who had said, “An affair with an actress! Why else does one become minister of culture?”

When Labour came to power, press interest shifted to Labour politicians. Psychologists also began to study the effect of overexposure to publicity, an effect that was found to lead to a sort of moral numbness. More cogently, perhaps, the separation of MPs from their families, their sense of power, and the attraction of alcohol and sex under these conditions have been described as likely reasons for the continuing improprieties of public officials. The scandals, in turn, led the media to expose private lives that, in the modern world of instant communication, are no longer private. Mellor, David
Major, John
[p]Major, John;and David Mellor[Mellor]

Further Reading

  • Clark, Alan. Diaries: In Power. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003. Clark’s diaries recount the Thatcher and Major years of government and give intimate details into the affairs and indiscretions of a number of ministers.
  • Major, John. The Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Prime Minister Major’s autobiography, which includes an account of Mellor’s resignation. Also includes Major’s opinion of the scandal and subsequent attacks on the Conservative Party.
  • Woodhouse, Diana. Ministers and Parliament: Accountability in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Woodhouse examines the resignation scandals of modern British politics, seeing patterns of responsibility and accountability. Mellor’s case is studied in some detail.

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