Ten ministers may be gone within days, said one MP
The mood in Westminster
Saturday 16 May 2009
Westminster became a different place this week. It was like visiting a once vibrant company on the verge of closure. The same people were still there, taking part in their familiar routines, but the darkened context meant everything had changed.
I became aware of the funereal atmosphere within seconds of arriving on Monday morning when I passed a Conservative MP in a corridor. Normally he stops for a brief gossip about politics and football. This time he had his head down and we did not exchange a word.
A few hours later I passed Hazel Blears on a nearby street. She is always ebulliently solicitous. This time she strode on with that determined smile. Probably she was too busy to stop and talk, but the expenses saga changes assumptions and perceptions. I assumed she had walked on because she was embarrassed at being one of those at the centre of the storm.
This is what happens when a big story engulfs an institution. Everything is viewed through the new prism. I popped into the press gallery on Tuesday to find that only a few MPs were in the chamber, debating earnestly something or other, exchanging words that no one will hear or read unless they turn to the next day's Hansard, the daily parliamentary record.
The House of Commons is often nearly empty, but suddenly the emptiness looked sinister. Where were they all? Quite a lot of them would be busy on other parliamentary business but the rows of empty green seats symbolised a crisis which is partly about the ambiguous role and purpose of MPs. The chamber is supposed to be a focus of their activities, but it rarely is. On the Tuesday it looked as if they had all fled.
When the Chamber was more crowded, their misconduct was the overwhelming theme. Once more the mood was odd as MPs went through acts of self-flagellation. Normally one side jeers at the other. Now they were jeering themselves. The noisy confrontations between the Speaker and two MPs early in the week were symptoms of the nervous edginess. The Speaker's bad-tempered reaction showed a foolish insensitivity to the crisis in a way that meant he became part of the story. But MPs know that his head on a platter will not purge the voters' anger. Like the most compelling dramas, the mood at Prime Minister's Questions avoided easy definition. The main leaders went out of their way to express their outrage at the expenses saga and yet there was no real consensus. Instead, they were in a deranged race to appear more outraged than the others and to offer half-baked populist solutions. A political battle was taking place over an issue that transcends party divisions.
Something else was strange. The Commons was deliberately subdued at PMQs, as it always is in the midst of a crisis, and yet this was their crisis. They were not gathering after the 9/11 terrorist attacks or to debate the collapse of the banks. They were there to debate themselves.
Some of them have retained a sense of humour. On Thursday I bumped into one MP. "How are you?" I asked politely. "I will let you know after I have read the papers tomorrow," he half joked. Another MP told a colleague he had never been so pleased not to have been in the news. This was a week for a low profile.
Some MPs are going to considerable lengths to make sure their profile stays low. One asked the BBC for a taxi from Parliament to a studio nearby. Normally he walked, but this week he did not want to face the angry voters on the streets. This was someone who had not been fingered by The Daily Telegraph. MPs are getting abuse even if they are not one of the ill-defined guilty ones. The Tory MP David Davies told the BBC: "I was at a public meeting last night talking about something completely different, and I thought, 'I wonder how many of these people think I'm some sort of a thief on the make'." He and others are trapped in a story that is reported often without nuance or context. The local newspapers are especially strident. Some are printing the emails they have received over several pages or on their websites. The number of emails and the level of anger are without precedent. A presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live says the same. She tells me she cannot recall a story where public anger of listeners is so intense.
My colleague, the former Conservative MP Michael Brown, met some of his local party canvassers on Wednesday night as he walked back to his flat close to Westminster. "How's it going?" he asked. "Awful," was the response. "They hate us all now." If that was bad for the Tories, try wearing a Labour sticker this weekend in Elliot Morley's seat where the local paper, the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, reflects the rage on several pages.
By Thursday the frenzy in the country was heightening a mood of gloomy hysteria at Westminster. One MP told me he thought 10 ministers could be gone by the end of next week. Yesterday, one minister had indeed stepped down. Another predicted that the next few months will be punctuated with sackings and de-selections. I also heard some speculation that the three party leaders will make a move against the Speaker over the next few days. Was such a scenario part of the frenzy or a well-informed prediction? I suspect the former, but it is getting increasingly difficult to tell.
Yesterday, Westminster was virtually empty, at least of politicians, leaving some journalists in the unusual position of discussing with each other whether there are subtleties to this drama that are getting lost as the voters fume. MPs might have left the gloom of Westminster, but they won't get any more comfort in their constituencies this weekend.
Day Eight: And there's no respite
Travel for spouses
Andrew MacKay and his wife, Julie Kirkbride, are the only husband and wife Commons team to claim under the spouses' travel allowance. According to the Telegraph, both MPs claimed under the allowance to allow them to attend functions in their partner's constituency.
Mr MacKay, who resigned as an aide to David Cameron over his use of expenses, represents Bracknell, Berkshire, while Ms Kirkbride's constituency is in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Ms Kirkbride was handed £1,392 from the taxpayer to fund her husband's travel costs. Mr MacKay claimed £408 for his wife's travel.
Morley & Hogg give a little bit back...
Elliot Morley is the latest MP to repay expenses after he claimed £16,000 over 18 months for a mortgage he no longer had. His local paper, the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, carried pages of anger from constituents. The Tory MP Douglas Hogg finally agreed to pay back more than £2,000 for costs said to include the cleaning of his moat. Shahid Malik, who stepped down as a Justice minister after his expenses were leaked, has refused to hand back any money. But he said he will donate £1,050 spent on a television system to good causes in his constituency.
Tory who claimed has portfolio of 24 homes
James Clappison, the Tory MP the MP for Hertsmere, has claimed more than £100,000 under the second homes allowance, despite having 24 properties of his own. His expenses claims show he billed taxpayers for petunias, geraniums and busy lizzies for his "second home" – a £375,000 house in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Since 2001, he has claimed £102,241 under the allowance. His properties include a farmhouse and a village cricket club. Mr Clappison said the fees office ruled his expenses were "not only entirely within the rules but also within the spirit of the rules".
The saints shine out amid the sinners
A few MPs have emerged as the good guys. Some from all three main parties do not claim a second homes allowance, even though they are entitled to do so. Labour MPs Martin Salter, Celia Barlow and Geoffrey Robinson do not claim the allowance. From the Conservatives, Adam Afriyie, Richard Benyon, Philip Dunne, Anne Milton and Rob Wilson turned down the money. On the Liberal Democrat benches, only one member from outside London, Cambridge MP David Howarth, has turned it down. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn claimed only £147.78 a year on food. Ed Miliband claimed only £6,300 to rent a terraced house.
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