Matthew Norman: One law for MPs, another for the rest of us

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The Independent Online

Anyone in need of a giggle, as we all are more than usual in these economically unsettling times, is directed to the Fourth Report into The Conduct of Mr Derek Conway by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges of the House of Commons.

It isn't exactly a scream, but for those who like their political merriment on the subtle side the elegant understatement is a delight. "To this extent," witters Section 35 of that newly independent honourable member's failure to record details of any work done by his undergraduate son Freddy, "he was the author of his own misfortune".

To this extent, forsooth! "To the extent that Dr Shipman failed to forge more convincing death certificates," the trial judge should have expressed it, "he was the author of his own misfortune". But however droll the linguistic gentility, it's the undertone of exasperation seeping through that reminds me of one of the great Jewish jokes.

In desperate financial strife, Hymie makes a rare visit to synagogue. "Lord," he whispers, "I'm in terrible schtuck with the business. Please let me win the Lottery." Nothing. Not one number out of six. A week later he's back. "Father," he pleads, "I can't blame you for ignoring me, because as we both know I've not been all that as a Jew. But show mercy, and I'll devote every hour I have left to your worship. Please let me win that Lottery." Nothing. Not even the bonus ball.

Another week passes and he's back, more deranged than ever. "Creator of Mankind," he hisses, "you hard-hearted old swine, why won't you hear me? If I don't have £5m by Wednesday I'm finished. The wife will leave me, the kids will disown me, my life will effectively be over. Lord, I am on my knees begging you ... let me win the Lottery."

At this, the clouds part (for reasons I can't quite make out, it appears to be an outdoor synagogue), a thunderclap echoes forth, and a rich deep voice booms from on high. "For crying out loud, Hymie, meet me halfway," booms the basso profundo. "Buy a fucking ticket."

This, it seems to me, is the report's authentic tone. Why oh why, is the subtext's mystified murmur, didn't the bloody idiot do something – anything – to help us help him? What possessed the bozo to be so astonishingly blatant about it that even we, MPs hardly in the business of turning on our own, have no choice but to recommend sanctions ... pitiful sanctions by most reckonings, maybe, comprising no more than a 10-day suspension and the repayment of a fraction of what he defrauded, but sanctions for all that. Why didn't he manufacture some written record of Freddie's tireless filial efforts, or contrive a vaguely plausible story? Why couldn't he meet us halfway?

Perhaps I'm being too harsh – many Westminster villagers seem to regard the report as admirably savage – but if not, the explanation as to why all the real haymakers were pulled is probably an internal struggle over the astringency required.

The select committee's chairman, Sir George Young, has failed to refute the rumour that he had to be talked out of recommending those risible penalties by the two fellow Tories with whom he wrote it. Apparently he thought only of a rebuke and a small financial penalty, until David Curry and Fatty "Nicholas" Soames warned him of strife that might follow.

Sir George isn't just a former cabinet minister (the first transport secretary, no less, with a previous conviction for drink driving). He is also well fancied to replace the unloved Michael Martin as Speaker of the House, ultimate overseer of parliamentary practice.

So what does it say about this self-protection racket that such a respected figure stared long and hard at such serious fiscal misconduct – but why ape his own mealy-mouthedness? This is strong prima facie evidence of an imprisonable crime – and his instinct was to slap the miscreant gently on the bum and tell him not to be such a silly ass again?

Ordinary as this lassitude may seem to many who work within the Palace of Westminster, journalists as well as politicians, to the world beyond it looks quite extraordinary, incredible, unbelievable, unconscionable and any other word of spluttering disbelief the Thesaurus cares to offer.

If the director of a public company failed to refer such evidence to the police, he or she could expect to be sacked for negligence. If an MP was quoted in the local rag saying that a constituent caught falsely claiming more than £40,000 in benefits should pay back a third of it and be denied further benefits for 10 days, the ensuing vitriol would be enough to lose a sitting Conservative Kensington and Chelsea, or a Labour incumbent Sunderland North.

That there will be the odd rascal in any society of people is too obvious a statement even for this column (doubtless time and the inevitable frenzy of media interest will uncover more), and that very obviousness is the crucial point. Well knowing as we do that human beings tend to succumb to fiscal temptation, the absence of scrutiny over MPs' allowances is tantamount to entrapment. It's like leaving a wad of notes on the bedside table of a hotel room, or giving Pete Doherty the keys to a hospital pharmacy. You know exactly what's going to happen, so why do it?

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the pitiable tale of Derek Conway, it isn't that all MPs are scoundrels whose natural home is on a Winchester Club stool next to Arthur Daley, debating how best to frustrate Inspector Chisholm's inquiries into the 700 Estonian iPhones in the lock-up. There is no reason to suppose that the House of Commons contains a higher proportion of crooks than any other gathering of 650-odd souls. The lesson is that the Corinthian spirit which continues to inform parliamentary policing died out long ago, in the unlikely event that it ever existed, and that the era of self-regulation must instantly be terminated.

So no more unreceipted, uninvestigated expenses, no more hiring spouses and offspring, no more voting on their own salaries and pensions. And no more of MPs sitting in judgment of friends and colleagues.

The lauding of this genteel committee for its righteous anger in proposing that weeny fine and suspension – sorry, I forgot the additional advice that that Mr Conway should apologise to the House – leaves no doubt that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges remains, as it is meant to be, rather keener on privileges than it is on standards.

For all the amusement, it also enjoys the sound of its own voice too much for my taste. Thirty-seven sections of that fourth report there are, running to 3,424 words, when all it needed was one section and six words. Refer to Yates of the Yard.