Andrew Grice: Stench that will linger long after stables are swept

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The Independent Online

When I asked an MP recently how the expenses issue was playing on the doorsteps, he replied that some voters were so disgusted that they still wouldn't open their door to any politician.

Other MPs report that public anger is finally cooling a little after boiling over last spring when the highly damaging list of excessive claims was leaked. When the former Speaker Lord Martin stood down last June, Labour conducted a focus group in his Glasgow North East constituency and found that 19 out of 20 people said they would not vote Labour because of the expenses controversy. No wonder Labour delayed the by-election caused by his resignation until November, when the party held the seat comfortably with a majority of 8,111.

Labour aides say the expenses issue figures less prominently in their private polling and focus groups today, and is eclipsed by the economy in the voters' minds. As the incumbent, Labour has suffered the most from the expenses crisis, which has reinforced the "time for change" mood reflected in the opinion polls.

There was some brave talk at Westminster yesterday of lines being drawn under the affair after Sir Thomas Legg issued his final reckoning of what 752 MPs and former MPs must repay following his audit of their claims, as ordered by Gordon Brown.

Sir Thomas hoped that this would be the end of the matter, but David Cameron was nearer the mark when he called it only the beginning of the end. The scathing Legg report about the "deeply flawed" system and the £1m payback ordered from more than half of MPs, will surely revive and prolong voters' memories of the scandal.

Sir Thomas's justice was rough. MPs have a right to feel sore about his arbitrary retrospective limits for cleaning and gardening. If the rules did not exist at the time, why should they be pilloried for breaking them? Many MPs won their payback appeals to Sir Paul Kennedy, a retired High Court judge, one of the many knights involved in a long and complicated saga which must have added to public concern as different watchdogs wrestled with each other over whether reforms to the system, and individual paybacks, should be watered down.

Sensible MPs realised they had no alternative but to let their wallets take a hit. Many resent the interference of the unelected former Whitehall mandarins in the democratic process, but Sir Thomas was right to blame the MPs for creating and maintaining the expenses. In the end, they had to be rescued from themselves after the leak gave Parliament a 10,000-volt shock. As Tony Wright, Labour chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, admitted: "The truth is that the politicians failed. We failed to clean up the system. We had to call in other people to do it for us. It is a great indictment on us."

The talk about lines being drawn is premature. The expenses issue will feature at the general election, not least because candidates challenging sitting MPs are bound to milk it at local level.

True, a record number of MPs are standing down at the election – about 130 already, with more to come – some of them to escape the voters' wrath over expenses without admitting it. We will probably see the highest turnover since 1945. If the Tories win power, half the MPs in the next parliament could be new.

Clean hands and new rules on expenses, with claims published immediately online, will help to sweep the stables clean but the stench will last well beyond the election.