Tory Without Glory

updated 08/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT HAS BEEN THE HIGHEST OF TIMES and the hottest of summers for British cabinet minister David Mellor. The Tory loyalist, 43, is playfully called Minister of Fun by the British press because, as the recently appointed Secretary of State for National Heritage, he oversees Britain's arts, culture and sports. But now that same press corps says that Mellor himself has been having altogether too much fun and has revealed that the cabinet member, who is married, had been furtively conducting a two-month affair with Antonia de Sancha, 31, a sultry, out-of-work actress who appeared in The Pieman, a soft-porn flick about a pizza-delivery boy who falls for a peg-legged hooker.

Ironically, Mellor's missteps became public knowledge just 11 days after the minister, whose job also includes watchdogging the British media, had reiterated demands for press laws to muzzle reporting on the private lives of public figures—a move made in reaction to recent coverage of the royal family's marital woes. Theoretically the British press shies away from reportage on the shenanigans of public officials as long as such activities do not affect their public work. But the editor of the racy London tabloid The People conveniently decided that Mellor had opened the door when, in a taped telephone conversation, he reportedly told De Sancha, "You have absolutely exhausted me. I had a wonderful time with you last night," adding that the evening had made him anxious because "I've got two big speeches to do tomorrow, neither of which I have prepared."

Mellor quickly issued a statement acknowledging that he and Judith, 43, his wife of 18 years, had been "experiencing difficulties" in their marriage and hoped "to sort the situation out...in private." But that story was followed by movie stills of a topless British-born De Sancha en déshabillé and testimony from De Sancha's former lovers, one of whom said she was quite adept at sucking his toes. Then Mellor's mother-in-law jumped in, opining, "It seems he is spending this week trying to save his job. I think he should be trying to save his marriage." Mellor speedily had himself photographed with his two children, his wife and her parents at the latter's home in Upper Beeding, West Sussex.

Though Mellor is hardly popular with the press—he has been described in The Guardian as "arrogant, abrasive, smarmy, pompous" and "ruthlessly ambitious"—censorship-despising reporters were not the only agents of his humiliation. Rather, the sting was reportedly set up by an acquaintance of De Sancha's, Nick Philp, 28, who offered the actress his apartment as a trysting place for a month, then bugged his own phone with a thought to making some money.

Philp, an electronics security specialist, eavesdropped on the calls Mellor made at least twice a day to De Sancha. When Philp offered to sell the story to The People (for a reported $75,000), the newspaper double-checked his claims by planting a gumshoe of its own to tape calls on the back patio by a rhododendron bush.

With Mellor on the defensive, Prime Minister John Major broke from European Economic Community negotiations to declare he would stand his longtime friend "through thick and thin" and that the Minister of Fun would keep his job.

Still, one remaining mystery is why Mellor, who was tipped off by an acquaintance that the jig was up, did not stop calling De Sancha and visiting the borrowed love nest. A possible answer lies in an interview he gave BBC radio, recorded before the scandal broke. If stranded on a desert island, Mellor said, the one item he'd take with him is his telephone. "I love talking to my friends," he said. "Even if I cannot have it wired up, I will carry it around like Linus's blanket, for comfort." In his case, unwired would surely be best.

LOUISE LAGUE
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London

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