The Right Honourable Spongers... and the longest week in their lives
One by one, all three main political parties reeled from fresh revelations over their members' expense claims. Brian Brady and Jane Merrick report
Sunday 17 May 2009
It seems an age ago now: the late-night response from a cabinet minister as the first news of The Daily Telegraph's expenses coup began seeping into Westminster. "Gordon and a cleaning bill?" he sighed, with relief, rather than despair. "This might not be as bad as we feared..."
Barely a week on and it is clear that it is worse than anyone, even the Telegraph executives who finally struck the deal to buy the discs containing four years' worth of MPs' expenses claims, could ever have imagined. The spectacle of hundreds of thousands of receipts, for items ranging from the petty to the extravagant, slithering into the light was never going to be good news for Britain's MPs.
In the hours before the Telegraph published, the Prime Minister had been confronted with the revelations to come, regarding his own claims and those of several members of his Cabinet. The prematurely relieved minister had not understood the gravity of the situation.
He was not alone. A week later, Margaret Beckett, facing a querulous Question Time audience, opted not for the cod apology and blaming of "the system" that had sufficed for many of her colleagues. Instead, the hectoring housing minister decided to take them on. "People can't understand why MPs make the claims that they do," she said. "It's not appreciated that MPs have extra costs that people even in comparable jobs do not have and... no one is allowed to explain."
The bewildered Mrs Beckett had careered from Little Big Horn to her own Ceaucescu moment. MPs' failure to comprehend the furious reaction to the expenses debacle could be more destructive than their legions of contentious claims.
The failure to respond was demonstrated early. The first Telegraph revelations took in heavyweights including Jack Straw, Hazel Blears, Alistair Darling and John Prescott. Commons Speaker Michael Martin reacted by calling in the police – to investigate the leak, not the details disclosed.
No matter, the Telegraph operation was gathering pace regardless, taking in more junior figures including Keith Vaz, Ben Bradshaw, Phil Hope and the Tory Greg Barker. How, the paper enquired, had the care services minister Mr Hope managed to squeeze £37,000 worth of refurbishment into his modest flat? The haughty tone of MPs' letters to the Fees Office betrayed the assumption that allowances were theirs by right; the indignant response when a claim for a cot was knocked back; the reference to "natural justice" in support of an appeal against the rejection of a claim for a £2,100 TV.
The response was not overwhelming contrition. Luton Labour MP Margaret Moran railed against the "misrepresentation" of her claim for £22,500 at a house 100 miles from her constituency, days after nominating it as her second home. Tourism minister Barbara Follett, wife of the millionaire author Ken Follett, insisted that her £25,000 for security for her London home was within the rules.
Elsewhere, colleagues in the spotlight were softening their approach by last Sunday. Hazel Blears, fielding questions over how she had avoided paying £13,000 in capital gains tax when she sold her "second" home, conceded: "I understand entirely why the public hates this." However, the Communities Secretary made it clear where she believed the real blame lay: "The system is wrong; it needs to be changed."
It was a refrain that was to be repeated ad nauseam by squirming MPs in the coming days. When millionaire Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward trotted it out on Newsnight on Monday, to help explain his £100,000 mortgage claims – as well as the 38p Muller Crunch Corner yoghurt and £1.06 pizza from Asda – an incredulous Jeremy Paxman replied: "So you are victims of the system?"
The advance warning of the revelations had not enabled the Government to cobble together a plausible response. Harriet Harman – as a London MP, one of the few not caught up in the second-home scandal – toured the studios holding the line about claims being within the rules and clinging to the promise that action on allowances was already in the pipeline.
Despite the paralysis, the opposition parties remained reluctant to dive in to score points off the Government. On Sunday, David Cameron announced that all Tory MPs would have to "explain why they've claimed what they've claimed", but he refused to condemn the Labour liggers. By Monday morning, it was clear why: after three days of attacks on mainly Labour MPs, the Telegraph finally trained its fire on the Conservatives. Michael Gove had "flipped" his Commons allowance and claimed £13,000 in moving costs. Francis Maude had claimed £35,000 in two years of mortgage interest payments on a flat a few hundred yards from his London home. David Willetts claimed for hiring workmen to replace light bulbs at his second home. Oliver Letwin charged £2,000 to replace a leaking pipe under a tennis court.
Mr Martin proposed "serious change" to the allowances system on Monday, but demonstrated his traditionalist view of the situation with an attack on Labour MP Kate Hoey, after she questioned the wisdom of calling in the police to hunt the leaker. "Some of us in the House have other responsibilities [than] talking to the press," he said. The outburst, repeated the following day when Labour MP David Winnick protested, only increased the pressure on Mr Martin and he ended the week facing a no-confidence motion from the Liberal Democrats.
But he would not be the only casualty. Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor have been suspended from the party over claims worth thousands of pounds for "phantom" mortgages". Justice minister Shahid Malik became the most senior victim on Friday after revelations of secret cut-price rental deal on his constituency home, which he designated as his main home. Mr Malik insisted that he had operated "one million per cent by the book" and added: "I am as straight as they come." Three hours later, he was gone.
The Telegraph roll call, however, continues relentlessly. Clare Short – whose noble account of her departure from Tony Blair's cabinet was entitled An Honourable Deception? – was among those embarrassed, claiming the full cost of her mortgage. Norman Baker, a vocal critic of expenses abuse, admitted claiming £20,000 to rent an office he already owned.
The gravity of the situation was beginning to get through by Wednesday, when the start of Prime Minister's Questions was greeted not with the usual raucous jeers, but with absolute silence. Mr Cameron, in proposing immediate action to restore public confidence, had left the Prime Minister looking leaden footed. Lord Tebbit said the way MPs had exploited the system reminded him of "the guy on disability benefit who goes out window cleaning". "I call them welfare junkies," the former Tory cabinet minister said, "and I am afraid that is too close to the truth for some MPs."
The Telegraph refuses to reveal how much it paid for the discs but it surely knew their value. What no one, least of all the MPs struggling to deal with the fallout, yet appreciates is their cost.
The court of public opinion
Come on Mr Chaytor, isn't it time you started living in the real world... along with the rest of the 60,000 of us in this wonderful town. You bring shame on the good name of Bury.
Robin Banks, Constituent of David Chaytor MP
The so-called middle class backbone of our society is as up to its ears in wheezes and dodges to get around taxes and allowances as any benefits scrounger.
Oh sure, a few of the most egregious cases will get thrown to the wolves by their local party selection committees come the general election, but most won't, and people will just "vote for Labour" or "vote for the Conservatives" as usual.
David Cantrell, Political blog
They have forfeited the right to the title of "Honourable". If I see the BBC use it in future, I for one will complain. In future years, when people ask why it was lost, we will tell them.
Chris, BBC Have Your Say comment forum
I see. I fiddle my expenses but if I get caught I offer to pay back, on the understanding that nothing else is required of me for justice to be done. At the same time I tell the police to hunt for the bastard who grassed me up.
Trevor Pateman independent.co.uk
Speaker Martin should consider himself fortunate that we are not allowed to string him up by his ankles on a lamp post in Parliament Square and chuck rotting fruit and veg at him.
I'm voting with my feet at the next election. I have a weeping bunion that I can mark the ballot paper with.
Al Dopa, Twitter
Justice? Nah! To steal is no shame! Shame is to steal and be caught! This is what these tree-hugging PC fanatic leftists bring us. ANARCHY!!!
Audaces Fortuna Juvat, Daily Mail
The INNOCENT should be named along with the guilty. The guilty should be tried for treason for bringing this Country into disrepute. I wasn't surprised to see the two "Leaders" hiding behind two female MPs on last night's Question Time!
Frederika Davis, Daily Mail
The Parliamentary hogs should be sent to the abattoir, not home to get their cheque books.
Organized Rage, Political blog
Please take a look at Britain today and ask yourself: "is foolishness and inefficiency to blame for the appalling state of my country, or is it adept vicious rigor, subversive practice, and organised social control by our supposed "leaders" to blame?"
Enemies of the People, Political blog
At last our MPs realise that everyone has something to hide even when they haven't done anything wrong. Perhaps ministers will now be more inclined to undo the legislation on civil liberties that has given the rest of us something to fear.
C E Evans-Pughe, independent.co.uk
I find myself, surprisingly, agreeing with Stephen Fry that the more people go on about the whole parliamentary expenses saga the more overblown it seems.
Jack Cornwell, Mail online
The Queen should dissolve this Parliament and should drag the Speaker of the Commons to the Tower to be hanged.
Margaret Beckett's performance was nothing short of a thundering disgrace. She is out of touch, smarmy, patronising and a liar. It's a scandal and she should be in jail along with the rest of them.
At school we had to carry a calendar card, on the back of which was printed the first school rule: "Conduct detrimental to the good name of the school is punishable as such." MPs should do the same, substituting "House" for "school".
David Ball, Telegraph online
The politicians of SW1 are undeserving, untrustworthy and overpaid. They have a sense of self-entitlement that is as unjustified as their use of the term "honourable". We want people in politics who are more like good priests – poor and honest.
Guido Fawkes, Political gossip site
If these expenses had not been leaked, would any of the party leaders have made a stand to clear up a corrupt system?
Frank Skinner, Broadcaster and comedian
As an alternative to incurring the costs of a second home in London, a number of MPs might usefully be offered accommodation by the state. Holloway and Pentonville spring to mind.
Nigel Foster, Daily Telegraph
The only ones who suffer in this benighted society are the people who do the actual work; they are taxed up to the eyeballs to pay for these leeches. Let's have a revolution.
John Tymol, Mail online
It is hypocritical to focus just on the shady dealings of MPs. They make use of the system, but behave in a normal human way.
Michael K Baldwin, independent.co.uk
Paying back the money claimed does not actually remedy the fact that trust – and any semblance of personal integrity – has been destroyed.
Devil's Kitchen, Politics website
I deplore overpaid members of the media circuit who attack public figures for their incompetence and lack of good character, whilst being unable to legitimately justify their grossly disproportionate salaries.
Narinder Purba, Blog
Although MPs have obviously overstepped the mark, after seeing this, I can't help but feel that an element of people's anger is motivated by envy, not wanting someone to have something they haven't got.
An honest MP I know – there still are a few – told me how she has to spend a lot of her "spare" time at constituency functions, and is also expected to donate to charities and so on by people who add insult to injury by saying, "Having a day off, then, are you?" when she would far rather be spending time at home with her small son.
Anticant, Political forum
I suggest that people might consider carrying out citizens' arrests on their local MPs and frogmarching them to the police station to be charged with fraud.
Ian Bone, Political blog
For all who love the idea of parliamentary democracy, this has been the worst week of our lives.
John Redwood, MP
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