“This is a good and honest Parliament with hard-working people in it,” David Cameron said amid the storm over Maria Miller’s expenses. The Prime Minister is right. The trouble is that perception is reality: YouGov found this week that seven out of 10 voters have “no confidence” the new system of MPs’ expenses introduced after the 2009 scandal will reduce abuse substantially.
Both Ms Miller and Mr Cameron ignored the spirit of the much tougher, independently-run expenses regime we have today. The former Culture Secretary was cleared of the main charge of using the now abolished “second homes” allowance to house her elderly parents. But her attitude throughout an inquiry by the Parliamentary standards watchdog was obstructive and she gave the impression of having more important things to do as a busy Cabinet minister. If she had observed the spirit of the new rules, rather than clinging to the letter of the old system, Ms Miller would have made a grovelling Commons apology. When it was clear her 32-second statement was totally inadequate, Mr Cameron should have sacked her immediately rather than let the sorry saga dominate the headlines for a week– and further erode public confidence in politicians.
The Prime Minister has form in mishandling resignations. He clung on to Andy Coulson, his director of communications; Liam Fox, his Defence Secretary and Andrew Mitchell, his Chief Whip, only for them to resign after weeks of damage. I suspect the next Conservative who gets into similar trouble will be shown the door very quickly.
The genuine public anger about Ms Miller has been a wake-up call to the entire political class. Disenchantment with mainstream politicians, already giving rocket boosters to the rise of the UK Independence Party, meant that it took only a tiny spark to reignite the expenses scandal. The scars from 2009 had not healed, as MPs had hoped.
Yet there is another side to this story. Mr Cameron was also right to say the UK has a “straight political system” and is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Research published last month by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the anti-sleaze watchdog, found that the worrying, sharp decline in public perceptions of standards in the past 10 years is far from a British disease. Brits are rarely the most cynical; their perception and experience of corruption are lower than in most other European countries.
The tragedy of the Miller tale is that the 2009 controversy had faded a little. The committee’s biennial surveys found that, in 2008, 82 per cent of people had a generally positive attitude towards standards in public life. That slumped to 55 per cent in 2010 but improved slightly to 59 per cent by 2012.
Mr Cameron argues that sunlight is “the best disinfectant” for cleaning up politics. True, there can be no turning back from the totally transparent system run by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). Yet does regular publication of all MPs’ claims merely reinforce the very public cynicism that such openness is designed to reduce? Tony Wright, a former Labour MP and Commons reformer who is now an academic, told a seminar on trust held by the committee last month there was a “paradox”: listing MPs’ claims for paper clips every couple of months convinced people that things are just has bad as they were at the time of the 2009 scandal. He said the gap between public perception and reality was “staggering.”
Of course, publication of MPs’ claims provides goldmine for the media. Most newspapers are happy to use it to underline the perception that nothing has changed, that our MPs are still on the make. Healthy scepticism has long since given way to a cynicism that is unhealthy for our democracy. But it’s not all the media’s fault; politicians also have themselves to blame. There has been an increase in the number of trivial complaints by MPs that someone in a rival party is fiddling his expenses. The latest wheeze is to grab an easy headline by asking the police to intervene. This all corrodes public trust further.
Backbenchers moan, with justification, that party leaders compete to wear the hairiest shirt over MPs’ pay and allowances, as we saw last year when Ipsa put forward a sensible package, including a one-off salary rise.
MPs rarely put their head above the parapet on such matters, knowing they would only attract more fire. There is no NUM – National Union of MPs—to stand up for them like a British Medical Association or Law Society.
Yet there is a real prospect that the opprobrium they attract for their now rigorously-policed expenses will persuade some MPs to leave the Commons at next year’s election, while deterring others from entering politics at all. Several of the 2010 intake regard being an MP a stopover rather than a career for life. The best ones, capable of getting a good job in the outside world, are more likely to depart, reducing the calibre of our leaders since today’s backbenchers are tomorrow’s Cabinet ministers.
In particular, new housing payments – under which MPs can claim rent for a one-bedroom room flat instead of the “second homes" allowance - are a real problem for women MPs and aspiring ones, who fear the system will keep them apart from their families since there is no room for them in their second home.
That would be disastrous, as it would entrench our “80-20 politics” in which men outnumber women by four to one (a global problem). Despite Ms Miller’s worst efforts, I am sure that having more women MPs would help the long process of restoring trust in our politicians.