Surviving scandal and controversy - with Mark Oaten

YOU LIVE AND YOU LEARN: Toppled by a sex scandal, Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten did what any of us would do... and became the chief of the international fur trade.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Nov 2017

The disgraced MP is such a well-worn British stereotype that you half-expect to find one lurking in the billiard room during a game of Cluedo. We do love to see the mighty fall.

Few would understand this better than Mark Oaten. If you don’t remember, Oaten was the Liberal Democrat frontbencher whose political career came crashing to an end in 2006 when the News of The World revealed the married MP had been involved in a lengthy affair with a male escort.

‘There’s no point letting it be the elephant in the room,’ Oaten says, pouring tea in a trendy London hotel. Despite the subject of our conversation, he retains the frank, relieved disposition of a former politician with no intention of returning to public life. Oaten’s had nearly 12 years to come to terms with the scandal that so publicly derailed his life and his career, but even so it can’t be pleasant to recall. 

Oaten was blindsided. His phone was hacked. A journalist ambushed him for a comment as he was strolling in his constituency, the day before his nightmare front page would arrive on breakfast tables across the country. He had to tell his wife, while his two children were in the other room, then fled to Cornwall as they flew to Switzerland. Later, after the story broke, he went to join them, spending two weeks on the run before finally taking the stand in the court of public opinion and facing the press.

‘It’s an extraordinary experience to have yourself splashed across the front pages. You learn a lot about your family and your friends. Oddly enough, it teaches you a lot about forgiveness. I had to forgive the people who tapped my phone and also I had to forgive myself. That was a tough one.

‘I had to learn to put in perspective what I did wrong, what I didn’t do wrong. A lot of people said to me you’re still the person we liked, you screwed up but you didn’t kill anybody. Stop beating yourself up about it.’

If you’re looking for easy scandal-surviving tips, Oaten says you’ll be disappointed. Yes, you should deal with the scandal immediately, apologise and say you messed up. ‘Going on the run’ isn’t recommended. But beyond that... ‘You can attend as many seminars and listen to as many PRs as you wish, but there’s no substitute for going through it yourself. It was a horrible but extremely grounding experience, but nothing scares me now in terms of those kinds of issues.’

Out of the frying pan

It was surely one of the reasons Oaten was able to bag his current role in 2011, as CEO of the International Fur Federation (IFF). Talk about out of the frying pan. Didn’t the controversy surrounding fur put him off?

‘I got the call asking if I’d come and talk to the fur industry. I said, there’s a fur industry? But I met this panel of six guys, heard their stories and I was hooked. This is an international job that’s involved in fashion, reputational risk, tariffs, tax and science. It’s hugely interesting, taking on an industry which has such misperceptions and historic baggage to it.’

‘Misperceptions’ is clearly a matter of opinion. One person’s chic is another person’s murder, which leaves Oaten in a constant, brutal fight for public opinion. The results have been mixed. In a recent defeat, fashion powerhouse Gucci just committed to going fur-free from next year.

Oaten on lobbying

‘Everyone lobbies, whether it’s a mum and dad lobbying the school to change the drop off point at school over fears about child safety, or a charity going to parliament to say please make eye tests VAT free. We’ve simply let the word become surrounded in negativity. Lobbying is just putting your case, it’s your democratic right – you just shouldn’t have to pay for it.’

Oaten unsurprisingly argues that the fur industry is neither cruel nor unsustainable, pointing out that ‘petrol-based fake fur’ is far more harmful for the environment. Much of his focus over the last few years has been on developing scientifically-grounded, ethical standards that can be applied worldwide, and which all of the major fur auction houses have committed to.

But selling this message isn’t straightforward. ‘Very few CEOs have organisations out there whose sole purpose is to put them out of business. Tesco may want to put Aldi out of business, but they don’t do it by saying supermarkets are evil. This needed addressing, and we weren’t doing it effectively enough.’

Oaten decided to take the IFF on the offensive, attacking the ‘dogmatic’ animal rights movement for what he sees as their excesses. At the same time, his focus has been on shifting the image of fur among consumers away from grandma’s fur coat, towards something younger and edgier.

That, combined with the international nature of the role, certainly keeps him on his toes. ‘One morning you can be meeting with a designer in a six-story Parisian house, surrounded by incredible designs and furniture. The next day you might be in the middle of Canada meeting with trappers with hands four times the size of yours, who’ve not heard of said designer, or doing tariff reduction negotiations in Beijing with Chinese government officials. You cannot imagine three more different groups.’

Which raises an obvious question. What does he wear? Suit and tie? Lumberjack shirt? Zippered raccoon gillet?

‘I tend to turn up in jeans and T-shirt for all three meetings,’ he says, gesturing to his polo shirt. ‘You’ve got to be true to yourself.’

Authenticity has rapidly become a tiresome business buzzword. Be yourself and the rest will follow. Except, as any politician will tell you, that isn’t always a good thing. People are complicated – there are different sides to them, not all of which you want to share with the world.

Unintended consequences  

Much like the infuriatingly fresh-faced singers lining up for the X-Factor, novice politicians probably don’t much understand the full, suffocating reality of fame. Oaten was just a teenager when he was elected one of Britain’s youngest ever councillors for the newly founded Social Democratic Party, the centrist newcomer that shattered Britain’s binary politics in the early 80s. By 1997, he was running for Parliament, in the Conservative seat of Winchester.

‘Politicians will tell you it is like a drug. Campaigning, the whole thing – it becomes addictive. You find yourself on a treadmill. It’s a dangerous treadmill, because it’s hard to get off.’

Winchester ’97 represented a dramatic victory for Oaten and the by-then Lib Dems. He won by only two votes, and after taking his seat was forced to contend a by-election after the previous MP forced a rematch. Ever keen on fair play, the constituents voted him back in with a majority of over 20,000.

‘I loved every part of Winchester. It was like being a social worker, local weather man and celebrity, connecting people and making things happen for them. I would spend my Fridays working in Sainsbury’s or as a dustman. It was an opportunity to rip up the rulebook and experiment.’

Didn’t he face charges of opportunistic showboating? ‘There is cynicism. You have to get to the point where they trust their relationship with you, where they genuinely believe that, you know what, he doesn’t have to be here at 4am because the village is flooding. You have to stop the cameras or publicity, otherwise it looks like opportunism.’

Oaten on centrist politics

‘I don’t think the current set of politicians is inspiring people. I could see a political party with Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and David Miliband in it. I’d vote for that party.’

If life as a constituency MP came naturally, the grandeur of Westminster was less welcome. ‘It gives you airs and graces. The minute you arrive there, everyone calls you sir. They hold doors for you. The whole system is around the almost worship of these politicians. There’s a sense of arrogance and detachment from reality with the role. You work in a palace. It’s archaic.’

Oaten is upfront about how badly he dealt with life in the Westminster bubble, especially after becoming a frontbencher, the Lib Dems’ Home Affairs spokesman. Becoming too concerned with raising his profile, losing his sense of grounding, not developing a thick enough skin to not care what people thought of him: problems many a CEO is familiar with.

‘Being a frontbench MP has all the difficulties of the CEO, the loneliness, the isolation, but in my job now I have a chairman, someone I completely trust who will challenge me, but whom I can go to and ask for advice. Who does the PM go to? The ambition of politicians is to get rid of the people who hired them. The knives can turn. Many talk about the relationship with the Queen – she’s the only person the PM can go to that they can trust.’

Business leaders are not politicians, clearly, but the lines are blurring. In the Twitter age, leaders are suddenly supposed to be inspirational and charismatic, yet one indiscreet comment can bring it all crashing down. Perhaps that’s a good thing – it keeps us honest. But it would be naive to think that scandal is something that only happens to other people. Despite your best intentions, things can go badly awry. But that needn’t be the end.

Oaten’s example is, in a rather strange way, quite uplifting. He was only 41 when his life was spectacularly inverted and he was turfed out of the only career he’d ever known. Yet he’s reinvented himself - albeit in a line of work that you perhaps wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing up at dinner parties or in the pub. 

Oaten on Brexit

‘I still have the remain poster propped up by the garden bin, but I’ve become a reluctant accepter of what’s happened. I actually believe we can negotiate some really good, simple, quick deals with Canada, America, China and India, that can be to the benefit of business, and I’m looking forward to disentangling from a lot of the Brussels red tape.’

Image credit: IFF


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime