Tories next to feel heat on expenses

Cameron says sorry as spotlight switches to claims made by shadow Cabinet
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Indy Politics

The scandal over MPs’ expenses engulfed the Conservative Party last night when several shadow Cabinet members were accused of making questionable claims.

David Cameron launched a damage limitation exercise by issuing an immediate apology – in contrast to Gordon Brown, who has declined to say sorry for alleged abuses of the expenses system by Labour ministers and backbenchers.

Today The Daily Telegraph, which has obtained the expense claims of all 646 MPs over four years, discloses that:

* Alan Duncan, the shadow Commons Leader and a multi-millionaire, claimed £4,000 for gardening work before Commons officials queried such payments.

* Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary and one of Mr Cameron’s closest allies, spent more than £7,000 furnishing a London property in 2006 before switching his “second home” for expenses purposes to a new property in Surrey and claiming more than £13,000 in stamp duty and fees for it.

* Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, spent thousands of pounds renovating a thatched Tudor country cottage shortly before selling it and “flipping” his expenses to a Georgian flat in London, where he claimed for thousands of pounds in furnishings.

* Francis Maude, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, bought a flat in London a few minutes walk from a house he already owned, rented out the other property and claimed nearly £35,000 in mortgage interest payments on the new flat.

* Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, claimed thousands of pounds to renovate a London flat 17 miles from his family home even though he already owned three properties within the M25.

* Cheryl Gillan, the shadow Welsh Secretary, claimed for dog food on her expenses. Last night, she said that she would repay the money.

* David Willetts, the shadow Universities Secretary, claimed more than £100 for workmen to replace 25 light bulbs at his home.

* Oliver Letwin, the Tories’ policy chief claimed more than £2,000 to replace a leaking pipe under a tennis court.

Mr Cameron said: “We have to acknowledge just how bad this situation is and just how angry the public are. We have to start by saying that the system we had and used was wrong and that we are sorry about that.”

He conceded that today would be “another bad day for parliament, and for the Conservatives”, adding: “We are sorry that this happened and it needs to change. It is bad for our parliament, it is bad for democracy and it has got to change.” In future, he said, MPs’ claims should be published online as soon as they are submitted.

After three days of damaging revelations in The Daily Telegraph which focused heavily on Labour MPs, the paper today casts an unflattering spotlight on to David Cameron’s frontbench team. The picture could revive Labour allegations about “Tory toffs” and undermine Mr Cameron’s attempts to convince the public that his party has changed.

Although there was no evidence that any of the claims by top Tories broke Commons rules, Mr Cameron may come under pressure to rebuke some of his frontbench team. The Tory leader has taken a tough line on “sleaze”, removing the party whip from MP Derek Conway, who employed his eldest son as his Commons researcher when he was a full-time university student. Mr Cameron wanted to curb the outside jobs of his frontbenchers but was beaten off by a Shadow Cabinet revolt.

Last week, he said Tory MPs would “have to explain themselves” when their expenses were revealed. Yesterday Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, criticised ministers for switching their designated first and second homes and called for a “hard and fast rule” about what constitutes an MP’s primary home.

According to the Telegraph, Mr Cameron and William Hague, his unofficial deputy and shadow Foreign Secretary, both had relatively straightforward claims. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, claimed for a chauffeur using his office allowance.

Labour will be privately relieved that the Tories have now been dragged into the controversy. Ministers accused the Tory-supporting newspaper of a “smear” against Labour last Friday after it revealed the detailed expense claims of 13 Cabinet ministers, including Gordon Brown.

Clare Brown, the Prime Minister’s sister-in-law, defended his decision to pay some of his MPs’ allowances to his brother Andrew for a shared cleaner who worked at their two Westminster flats. Writing in The Guardian today, she said she and her husband were just keeping “a bit of an eye on him on the domestic front”. She said that they began sharing costs for the cleaner because Mr Brown was so busy, insisting he was “extremely scrupulous and conscientious in these matters”.

Mr Duncan, who is responsible for Tory policy on expenses as shadow Commons Leader, recouped more than £4,000 over a three-year period.

In 2007, a bill for £3,194 for gardening was not paid by the Commons Fees Office, which wrote to Mr Duncan suggesting the claim might not be “within the spirit” of the rules.

Mr Duncan insisted last night: “It was me who raised the issue of gardening costs with the fees office. Although it was a legitimate claim, we agreed that it might be seen as too large a single item and therefore I did not claim it.”