They still don't get it, do they? MPs and their lucky relatives on the public payroll insist they're a special case. Thousands of families are facing a bleak Christmas with factories closing, shops going bust and factories operating on short time. But MPs live and breathe in a bubble where hardship is something they quantify differently from the rest of the country.
The minute Sir Christopher Kelly unveiled his 60 recommendations to reform the expenses system and drag noses out of the trough, the disgruntled chorus of whingeing went from a dull whine to a muted snarl. And you know who are the worst offenders? The females.
Before Kelly had even spoken, Harriet Harman was mouthing off to Andrew Marr that not being able to employ family members would be "unfair", and should apply only to new MPs. Talk about double standards. Then she claimed that nothing was decided yet, and it was up to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (made up mainly of MPs, naturally) to decide whether to implement Kelly's recommendations or not. Kelly has asked if two people on this committee can be lay members, but they still won't be in the majority, even though the chairman, Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, is a public appointment.
So now we have a real mess – 60 pretty sensible proposals, arrived at by consulting members of the public and MPs, will be now debated all over again by a parliamentary committee, and MPs will complain as much as they can. Finally, next spring, the new system will be in place. And I bet you £500 that the current batch of MPs will be exempt from most of the radical proposals for five years.
Listening to Suzy Gale, the one-woman media extravaganza married to Roger Gale, Tory MP for North Thanet, is enough to make me reach for the headache pills. She's been on every radio station, quoted in every paper, written her story in the upmarket and downmarket press. She's "leading" the disgruntled spouses facing the sack after Kelly ruled that MPs should not be able to employ relatives. Suzy Gale sums up what is so depressing about many MPs: somehow, in spite of everything, they believe they're hard done by.
She's pocketing £30,000-£40,000 a year (a high wage for a PA in North Thanet, by the way), aided by another one-and-a-half assistants. She tells us that "people ring up wanting Roger, but I'm able to say I'm his wife and they really seem to like that". What most people want is a professional, who'll get the job done and kick ass. The fact that an officer manager shares the marital bed does not mean that they are the best person to do the job.
According to her husband: "MPs are being sacrificed on the altar of public opinion... it's a cheap shot." Hardly. MPs are being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world of work. In any other business or governmental workplace you have to advertise jobs, not discriminate against anyone, and make appointments in a transparent way. That's the way employment law works in the 21st century. Why should MPs be able to pick a salary and choose the person they'd like to see more of, ie, their spouse? According to Suzy, "We offer constituents a team." No: voters chose your husband, not you.
Helen Goodman, a government minister earning £96,000, is another whinger. She claims Kelly's recommendations are "sexist" and that women won't stand as MPs unless they can claim for a cleaner. How many female voters can claim for a cleaner on their expenses? Answer: none. Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire, is another hard-done-by female – filmed for the BBC News on a dark railway platform, moaning that Kelly's proposal to end second-home allowances for MPs living within a 60-minute commute would mean few women would want to take dangerous journeys late at night. Which prompts the question: why hasn't Parliament managed to modernise, so that debates end by 8pm? Instead of giving MPs three months off in the summer, shorten the hours and increase the days they actually have to turn up. When these well-paid women talk about their tough working conditions, they forget what electors have to put up with: commuting, doing their own cleaning, and paying for their own lunch.
A-list advice: Why are politicians in love with celebrities?
Why do politicians want to hang out with celebrities? When Tony Blair invited pop stars and actors to Downing Street, it eventually backfired on him, as one by one they slagged him off over the war in Iraq. Gordon Brown, anxious to draw a line under Tony's style of government, claimed he was immune to showbiz glitz, but now we discover he's been dining at Chequers with Matt Lucas, David Walliams and soap stars. You'd think that Barack Obama might have enough on his plate without going down the same route, but he's set up a committee to advise him on the arts that includes Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, and Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame. Obama's already met with flak for the number of A-list actors he's been hanging out with during his first nine months in the job. They include Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Denzel Washington. It's pathetic that world leaders bother to listen to the opinions of the rich and famous, as if a film star has some hot line to the man and woman in the street, and a unique take on global issues. I blame it on Bono – anyone would think he had single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall while masterminding the elimination of world poverty.
Life is cosy on planet Sarah
The packaging of Sarah Brown as the acceptable face of her husband continues. There's a Sarah Brown page on the Downing Street website, including a news section. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be anything worth including on it since 12 October.... We are encouraged, instead, to follow her on Twitter. Her comments range from the incomprehensible to the banal: visiting a building, she tweets "great facilities", hardly hold-the-front-page stuff. We know she's a patron of six good causes, but what does Mrs Brown do every day? There are many mums in the UK with small sons and workaholic husbands, who have to shop, clean, cook and hold down a full-time job. She's not elected and she's not a civil servant, so why hasn't she gone back to employment, as Labour is always telling women to, instead of chirping about being a "champion for working women"?
That's no way to run a railway
From Friday, Elaine Holt will run the East Coast rail franchise on behalf of the Government, after National Express's failure to make it pay. I use this line all the time, and can't understand why making a profit is so hard. Last Friday there wasn't a spare seat on my train from Thirsk to King's Cross. How will customers fare with the new regime? Ms Holt promises punctuality, better food for first-class passengers and a better trolley service (as well as increases in off-peak fares). Shame she can't do anything about the stations. Catch a train on a Sunday at one of the smaller calling points: the waiting room will be closed, leaving you shivering on a windswept platform. And improving the catering won't be difficult. The other week I was refused a cup of hot water for my own teabag, because they "didn't have any".