A national newspaper phoned me last week asking if I was planning to stand against any of the sleaze MPs caught in the expenses row. My first reaction was that I couldn’t imagine see myself sitting in parliament with Esther Rantzen and I don’t look good in white.
But, look, you should never rule anything in or anything out. The fact that we have a Chancellor of the Exchequer intending to stand again for parliament after flipping his house four times in four years and charging tax advice to expenses in direct contravention of his own Inland Revenue rules, is enough to drive anyone to desperate measure. If there were a way to arrange a kind of electoral citizens arrest for the worst offenders, without actually electing active Members of Parliament, I would be first in the queue.
But fantasy politics aside, I really don’t see that electing a lot of media pundits and c-list celebrities standing for parliament is the answer to the crisis. I can’t think of any independents in the Scottish parliament or in Westminster who have made a significant contribution, apart from the magnificent Margo MacDonald - officially the country’s most cost-effective politician - and she of course had a long history in front-line Nationalist politics before going indie.
If a lot of self-opinionated populists were to stand for parliament, like the Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer - who is threatening to stand against the Tory MP Sir Alan Haselhurst - or like Kelvin MacKenzie or Richard Littlejohn, we could end up with the politics of the mad house replacing that of the duck house. How does Richard Branson MP or Sir Alan Sugar MP grab you? The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is what we might end up with ultimately - a media personality politician who is elected because he controls most of the media. The political parties may seem an anachronism, but they remain the only plausible aggregators of policy ideas and the only organisations capable of forming a government.
However, something needs to be done to kick start the rehabilitation of the parties. The two main party leaders, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, seem paralysed by the crisis, unable to act because of the enormity of the consequences of cleaning up the Commons. They have tried to divert attention from the expenses scandal by making declarations of constitutional and political reform. All well and good, but the public want action to remove miscreant members, now, before changing voting rules.
And where is the Prime Minister at this moment of crisis? Gordon Brown has hidden himself in his flipped home in North Queensferry hoping that if he keeps his eyes closed long enough that the story will go away. Both parties have been waiting for the public to get bored and the press start to turning on the Daily Telegraph for getting the scoop of the century. But it ‘s not going to happen. There is an arrogant assumption in in Westminster that the voters are essentially stupid people with very short attention spans. But the public anger shows no sign of abating, and events are now moving out of party control. The departures last week of the “double dipping” Tory MP Julie Kirkbride and Labour’s dry rot specialist, Margaret Moran MP, suggest that the process has developed a momentum of its own.
David Cameron, who had promised swift and decisive action, slipped badly last week. He defended the indefensible Kirkbride, who seemed to be supporting most of her family her expenses, until she was eventually forced out. Cameron was hoping to get away with losing a few old buffers, already heading for retirement, and keeping the younger telegenic Tory MPs like the Bromsgrove MP. But this strategy no longer looks plausible. The line is not holding, and the public want blood. Shadow cabinet figures like Alan, “constant gardener” Duncan, Cheryl “dog food” Gillan and David “lightbulbs” Willetts must be feeling their collars. Looking at the Daily Telegraph lists, there could be another forty Tory members following them out the door. Conservatives have been responsible for the most of the headline-grabbing expenses, like moat cleaning, duck houses, tree surgery, learing moats, extending mansions, building servants quarters at public expense. Cameron claims he is stunned by these revelations, which suggests he is completely out of touch with his own party. He is promising retribution, and it will have to be swift.
Over at Labour, up to a quarter of the cabinet may have to go, led by Hazel Blears, Geoff Hoon and Alistair Darling, and followed by a similar number of Labour MPs as depart the Tory becnhes. Brown’s course of action was determined the moment he condemned Blears’ behaviour, rightly, as “totally unacceptable” two weeks ago. The communities secretary flipped her house three times in one year in order to maximise tax free capital gains and pay for improvements. As the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley said on Newsnight last week, Blears’ behaviour is simply incompatible with membership of the Labour Party, let alone the government. Brown can’t escape the consequences just because he is afraid to antagonise the Labour sisterhood. Eventually, she will have to join Margaret Moran on the dole queue, and her departure will drag down other flippers like Geof Hoon.
Some say this is arbitrary and against natural justice. Due process should be observed and all given a right to defend themselves. Maybe. But the problem here is that they will all say that they were only obeying the rules, victims of the system, couldn’t help themselves. Strictly legal standards of guilt and innocence don’t really apply in politics, where MPs are subject to the court of public opinion. The reality is that these MPs have been found guilty as charged and will be removed at the earliest election, if Labour doesn’t move first.
There are wider issues here too. The implosion of parliament’s moral authority is a serious matter. I spend a lot of time speaking to students and organisations like the Scottish Youth Parliament. In the past I have always told them that, while there may be problems with individual MPs’ expenses, the vast majority of politicians are not corrupt, and don’t go into parliament for personal gain. I can no longer say this in all conscience. There is simply too much evidence of conscious and premeditated dishonesty. Too many MPs were systematically milking the system and making tens and even hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax free gains. By any reasonable understanding of the word, they are crooks. It is intolerable that any of them are still in their jobs, when in any other walk of life they would be out on their ear. We are waiting.