Steve Richards: Medicine with a deadly aftertaste

MPs are loathed, while those wielding power without responsibility are revered
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The Independent Online

Has anyone seen or heard from Sir Thomas Legg since he threw his grenade into the MPs' expenses drama? I have not heard him on the Today programme or seen him on Newsnight. He has given no interview to a newspaper. No one seems to care very much. Legg is a former civil servant. He is used to anonymity and we accept his right to throw grenades from the darkness.

Yet, in addressing the thorny issue of MPs' past expenses, Legg acted in a way that was extraordinary. With the lofty disdain of an official who had never fought an election in his life he imposed retrospective limits. In his letter to MPs he was quite candid about what he was doing, saying: "Some limits must be regarded as having been in place to prevent disproportionate and unnecessary expenditure from the public purse."

That phrase "some limits must be regarded as having been in place" suggests that Legg is something of a rule-breaking revolutionary, an ironic twist as his role in this affair was to make sense of the rules. I regard the generous pensions paid to former senior civil servants as disproportionate. Perhaps I can recommend that stricter limits on final salary schemes should be "regarded as having been in place" and demand that Legg and his colleagues pay some of it back.

I have no idea what Legg's motives were. Perhaps he was scared of a mauling from the media if he did not act with an indiscriminate ruthlessness. Maybe he genuinely believes that rules can be applied retrospectively. I assume we will never know. He does not give interviews.

I am not defending the claims of MPs, although there is a case that can be made for most of them. The reaction of Legg and the probable response of Sir Christopher Kelly tomorrow when he publishes his recommendations on future arrangements are much harder to defend. The two of them in their separate ventures have applied medicine that threatens to kill off the ailing patient rather than revive it.

Kelly's much leaked recommendations are so extensive and tyrannical that they read like something out of a Monty Python sketch, by starting with a serious pitch and becoming increasingly silly. "If MPs miss the last train home they can take a sleeping bag and spend the night under the nearby Waterloo Bridge" seems to be the sort of new regime he would like to see in place.

Kelly captures the public mood, and perhaps his own. Various ministers and special advisers tell me that some senior officials cannot entirely disguise their exasperation with those wretched types who have to face voters in elections. Kelly's proposals show us what he thinks of them. With a neat symmetry, the lofty mandarins form a hostile alliance with most voters.

Obviously, the current Parliament requires a cathartic purge and that will happen. Legg has seen to that. A running story over the next few months will be the number of MPs who announce they are leaving politics. That is a manageable development, although not one without its downsides. I suspect David Cameron in particular might miss those experienced MPs with their duck houses and moats when he seeks to pick a government from the most inexperienced pool of MPs in recent times.

Kelly, though, is about the future. If his regime is imposed in full, Parliament will become a place largely for the wealthy or the very young. He will send out a signal that while other countries might value elected representatives and pay them accordingly Britain does not regard democratic politics as highly. None of the small number of current MPs who are guilty of wrongdoing will suffer. They will be gone before the punitive consequences are applied.

I have not met an MP who believes privately that Legg and Kelly have been fair or sensible, but most of them will pretend that they support the proposals, or at least their leaders will. The public declarations are another ironic twist in an affair that will fascinate historians for centuries to come. The MPs' expenses scandal revolved around voters' moral judgements about what they regarded as honest. Yet the public political response has been dishonest, and it is the voters that demand the dishonesty.

Privately Brown was livid with Legg for exceeding his remit. Harriet Harman had her doubts as well. In public they had no choice but to smile and declare their full support. The voters expected surrender and would not have accepted a more honest account which challenged the unelected mandarins' lofty touch.

Cameron too must have private doubts about the sweeping nature of the Legg letters and the Kelly recommendations. Members of his shadow cabinet admit privately that they would think twice about going into politics under the new arrangements. Yet tomorrow Cameron and his shadow cabinet will almost certainly declare their willingness to accept the recommendations. Political leaders have no choice but to be dishonest in their attempts to regain trust with voters.

Kelly will explain his thinking at a press conference tomorrow and presumably in interviews. That will be the limit of his accountability in changing drastically not only the way MPs are paid, but in the ways they function. MPs are loathed but at least they are accountable around the clock, unlike current senior civil servants and former officials who wield immense power. If an MP throws a grenade into any saga they will be on the Today programme at ten past eight to explain what they were up to and a non-appearance would be pilloried: "We asked X to appear, but they refused to do so". Yet others who wield power without responsibility are revered even if they cause mayhem. Legg is nowhere to be seen. Kelly will return to the darkness. MPs sweat in the public eye. The more they explain the more they are loathed.

No wonder the Conservatives plan to give away more powers to non-elected bodies. In the current climate who can blame them? But if anything goes wrong, the elected politicians will get the blame, and the revered, knighted figures from the non-elected world will not be available for comment.