Sunday 18 October 2009
Alan Watkins: Bullies both, but Mr Brown is worse
The Prime Minister and David Cameron have picked on out-of-favour MPs in the expenses row
For most of the past year I have kept in my head two propositions, or, if you prefer, predictions. They may appear contradictory, but they are perfectly consistent. One is about what will probably happen; the other is about what ought to happen. Mr Gordon Brown, as I have thought for a long time, is most likely to carry on for as long as he can, if necessary till June 2010. However, for the good of the country, it would be better all round to have an election at the end of October.
In recent years, October elections have been held in 1951, 1959, 1964 and 1974. The time is past. Arrangements should have already been made. Apart from two aberrant Februarys (1950 and the first 1974 election), we can look forward, if that is the appropriate phrase, to the spring. It would have been better for everybody if the parties had set out their stalls at the party conferences, if needs be truncated – in any case, they are becoming more like party rallies – and allowed the voters to decide.
As it is, the reopening of Parliament (the state opening does not happen until later) has witnessed as fractious, ill-tempered and dishonest as anything that went on under the rule of the former Mr Speaker Martin, now ennobled. It is astonishing that the first session of Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday was allowed to pass without a single mention of expenses.
The new Mr Speaker Bercow has said that the MPs should accept Sir Thomas Legg's rulings and pay up like gentlemen, or ladies, as the case might be. It does not seem to have been a speaker's ruling in any formal sense. It was more that the Speaker hoped that men of goodwill and moderation would come together, and wise counsels prevail.
In much the same spirit did the old pre-war Manchester Guardian urge the participants in some historic and insoluble conflict to resolve their differences forthwith. During one such dispute, the newspaper concluded: "We are sometimes left to wonder whether the Greeks want a stable government."
Both Mr David Cameron and Mr Brown take the same view as Mr Speaker. Additionally the party leaders have a sanction at their disposal. Stubborn members can be deprived of the party whips, and consequently of their right to contest the general election.
I say "consequently" in an airy way, because in the past week everyone has been writing it. But it by no means follows, or ought to follow. The tendency for the past decade and more has been to obey the leader's wishes, whether about deprivation of the whip or the ability to contest the forthcoming election, irrespective of what the party's rules say.
The will of the leader is the supreme law. And so the political career of a Tory politician, Mr Howard Flyte, was brought to an end before the 2005 election by Mr Michael Howard merely for expressing his views on public expenditure, rather than on race, Europe or even expenses. In the sad summer months before the recess, Mr Cameron led and Mr Brown did the best he could.
The fullest force of Mr Cameron's displeasure was felt by the old, the unpopular or those who had made clear their intentions to resign anyway. The Shadow Cabinet was protected. Mr Brown farmed out sanctions-imposing powers to the National Executive Committee: about as suitable a body for imposing sanctions as the social committee of the Millwall Supporters' Club. This body's or Mr Brown's
principal victim was Dr Ian Gibson, who had been member for Norwich North and had provided a trifling benefit for his daughter. He was liked in his constituency, highly regarded in the House and a critic of Mr Brown. Accordingly, he had to go. It was a clear-cut case.
Dr Gibson refused to go quietly. He resigned his seat. Someone else fought the ensuing by-election as the Labour candidate, and the Conservative won. Another success for the Brown political intelligence – and the Brown political machine!
Mr Brown was not finished yet. He appointed Sir Thomas Legg to go over the early summer's expenses claims as they had been revealed by The Daily Telegraph, and to make recommendations. He used to be permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department. He would have approved, or, maybe, disapproved the appointment of judges, asking: "D'you know anything about this new chap? Is he all right?", or words to this effect, of candidates for the bench.
Sir Thomas's views on cleaning ladies seem distinctly on the ungenerous side. The immigrants from Poland, Lithuania and other parts of the world employed by the inhabitants of the Westminster village to keep their houses clean would do badly under any regime supervised by Sir Thomas.
The other feature of Sir Thomas's investigation is that he appears to have an obsession with cleaning and gardening, and to disregard questions of house-switching and mortgage relief. There was a poignant scene in the Commons last week when Ms Jacqui Smith apologised to the House for her misdeeds, though, as far as I could see, without any financial penalty.
This apology was the result of a report by the Labour-dominated Standards and Privileges Committee. It was one of several committees set up under John Major's government to eliminate corruption. Mr Brown then tried to do something of his own in the form of Sir Thomas. Politically, he could not afford to be seen to be struggling to keep up with Mr Cameron, as he had been at the beginning of the summer. But it is always unsatisfactory to have competing and overlapping jurisdictions. The House of Commons provides a luxury of illustration, such as the recent dispute over injunctions. What was more confusing still was that Sir Thomas was invited – or invited himself – to make the rules up as he went along.
The Fees Office in the House agreed with the claims when they were originally made. It may be that the office was overgenerous with the claimants. Or it may be that MPs should pay for cleaning, gardening or whole second homes from taxed income. No doubt the former system was deplorable. But Sir Thomas seems to have embraced what Oscar Wilde once called (in The Importance of Being Earnest) the worst excesses of the French revolution.
It will be surprising if a handful of members refuse to pay. I have seen it suggested that QCs will conduct their own cases in court. I do not know what professional etiquette is in such cases, but I should have thought that another colleague would be engaged to conduct the case – for a reduced fee, of course.
Both party leaders have appeared as bullies. But Mr Brown seems to be the bigger bully because it was he who set up Sir Thomas's investigation. He did this to try to gain a party advantage over Mr Cameron. Once again, it had turned round in his hands, like a water diviner's rod.
There was a lot of anger in the parliamentary Labour party at the turn that events had taken. It was perfectly fair to blame Mr Brown. Mr Cameron does not get blamed – unless he is being particularly silly, as he was in announcing Sir Richard Dannatt's appointment before he had won an election. It is one of the advantages of now being the favourite to win that election.
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