MPs' expenses - did it have to be this bad?


I thought I would share an argument I have now had with quite a few people. In it I say it would have been possible to frame the MPs’ expenses saga to make its impact more manageable. Just about everyone I have spoken to disagrees, maintaining that the expenses claims were so intrinsically awful they were bound to be lead to this seemingly endless crisis.

I have said in past posts how I would have advised framing the issue. Something like this:

‘The vast majority of MPs are hard working and public spirited. Most MPs have seen their workload, especially in their constituencies, increase greatly over recent decades – for example, MPs today get four or five times as much correspondence as twenty years ago. Today’s MPs – many more of them women - also take their family responsibilities more seriously which makes living in two places harder to do

‘ But nearly all of us in Westminster have been responsible for allowing a rotten system to develop to deal with the gap between what MPs think they deserve and need to do the job today and what the public and media are willing to tolerate. For that the public deserves an apology from us all. The system has to change and we have to have an honest and open conversation about how we can recruit and retain good quality politicians while recognising politics is something people do to make the world a better place not to become rich.

‘ If any MP has broken the law they will be subject to that law. But it is pointless getting into an argument about whether a duck pond is more or less immoral than a plasma screen TV, whether those who take every penny of their entitlement are better or worse than those who claimed less but for items that seem silly or self indulgent, whether we can ever know the motives of those who may have had reasons for changing the designation of their house but also gained from so doing. Every MP will have to accept the judgement on their actions of their local parties and local constituents – that is democracy’

As I predicted, the Brown and Cameron tactic of selectively dumping on those colleagues whom the Telegraph or the public deem to be the worst offenders may work in the short term but it quickly runs into problems. Whoever Brown reshuffles at the weekend, he is certain to come under the attack that he has used the saga to get rid of dispensable ministers but has turned a blind eye to the misdemeanours of his allies. The apparent intention of Number Ten to brief that the forthcoming election results are ‘a defeat for democracy not for the Labour Party’ will be seen for the opportunism it is.

This is a mess. It has many twists to come and the political leaders are now victims to the next round of revelations (or more precisely the way the Telegraph and the broadcast media choose to spin the next set of revelations). I believe it could have been handled better and diffused more quickly but perhaps, in this, I am alone.

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