The Tory MP for Windsor Adam Afriyie got a big boost over the weekend with a number of stories appearing in the press indicating that he could be a contender for Conservative party leader if Cameron was to lose the election in 2015 (or perhaps sooner if “events” were to cause a vacancy to become available).
So far, so much froth. An MP that most people have never heard of sets a hare running for a future leadership bid. Good luck to him.
What concerned me though was in the inevitable "profiles" that appeared alongside the leadership bid rumour stories was the phrase "expenses saint". Adam Afriyie has never claimed for his second home allowance since he was elected in 2005.
The expenses scandal of 2009 was a seismic political event and parliamentarians are still trying to recover from the huge damage that their actions caused. There is no doubt that a number of them were claiming for expenses that were outside the rules. There is also no doubt that even those who were claiming within the rules were often claiming in a way that went against the spirit of those rules. The regulations have been tightened up and hopefully things are now much more transparent.
But because so many MPs were swept up in the scandal there are very few who were not in some way tainted by it. Even those whose claims were perfectly legitimate both in letter and spirit have seen their expenses questioned. The only way an MP can be totally "clean" on this, it seems, is to not have claimed at all. So not claiming a second home allowance is a big flashing neon sign that says "my hands are clean on expenses".
This is worrying. It is worrying because any MP (outside of London) realistically needs to maintain two different residences. We can argue about exactly how much this needs to cost and how much should be claimed but it is definitely not zero.
The only way that Mr Afriyie is able to not claim is because he is an independently wealthy man. Judging by some reports he is worth over £100 million.
Cost of the job
The whole reason David Lloyd George introduced a salary in the first place for MPs over 100 years ago was to ensure that people who weren't wealthy were able to become MPs. The expenses are supposed to cover the extra costs of running two different homes. £65K per year might seem like a lot of money but to live in two different places, travel between them and spend a lot of your time in London will eat away at that sum pretty quickly. The second home allowance specifically guards against this.
If the Windsor MP is able to scale the greasy pole using his lack of expenses claiming as traction this sets a disturbing precedent. It is putting down a marker that an important aspect of how an MP progresses up the ranks is by not claiming expenses. Of course, the MPs who are most likely to be able to do this are the ones who are very well off.
There are already lots of complaints about how we have a "cabinet of millionaires" and that they are out of touch with ordinary people. These complaints have some merit in my view. But if we want to ensure this is less of an issue in future we need to nip in the bud this idea that the best MPs are the ones claiming low or zero expenses.
I wish Adam Afriyie well in his attempt to pitch for the top job. From what I have read he is a diligent MP who may well deserve high office. But I hope he is not given preferment because of his expenses record. It is not a mark of how "clean" he is but how "rich" he is.
Venerating "expenses saints" is a risky game. Those of us who want more meritocracy in our political life should have nothing to do with it.
For more from Mark Thompson visit his blog