It will be a long time before the words "MPs" and "expenses" can occur in the same sentence without provoking either fury or sniggering. And neither reaction says anything good about British politics. The daily revelations about claims for everything from supermarket snacks to five- and six-figure property deals, are confirming a widespread public view about the different world in which many believe politicians live. The honourable exceptions are receiving short shrift.
With austerity the mood of the season, it is no wonder that MPs' apparent determination to retrieve every last penny and pound is having a dire effect on the standing of politicians. Nor, given that Labour is in government and that it was its ministers on whom the spotlight first fell, is it surprising that the greatest hit has so far been taken by Labour. By any standards, though, the figures are terrible. In one weekend poll, Labour's standing, at 23 per cent, was lower than at any time since polling began.
Further exposés will only deepen public cynicism, and turn voters off mainstream politics. It is forecast that the coming local and European elections will show catastrophic losses for the established parties, and especially for Labour. Unless there is a major transformation before the next general election, the results are likely to show a massive revolt against incumbency.
All this helps to explain the new sense of urgency that now attends the expenses issue. As early as today, MPs are expected to approve a new, independent auditing body to scrutinise and validate their claims – functions currently performed by the Commons fees office, and ultimately overseen by the National Audit Office. However strict the proposed new arrangements, however – and there is no real reason, in theory, why the previous system should not have entailed the necessary rigour – the immediate political damage has been done.
The honourable members who will be invited to cast their votes today are the very same MPs who have passed up numerous opportunities in recent months to slow the gravy train that their expenses had, in many cases, become. The latest attempt was only two weeks ago, when they faced down the Prime Minister's call for a vote on abolishing the second homes allowance. It took the reality of what was happening, exposed in all its tawdry detail to public view, to bring them even to discuss outside auditing. It is as though they had abandoned all normal notions of accountability and forgotten where the money to pay and reimburse them had come from.
Talking of money and accountability, there are two opportunities for special pleading that the latest revelations should finally lay to rest. The first is that generous expenses were needed to make up for MPs' inadequate pay. True, top pay in Britain has risen inexorably in recent years; but comparison with European legislatures shows that British MPs and ministers are as well rewarded as most, and that their expenses are, in general, higher. They have no reason at all to feel hard done by.
The other relates to the financial advantages some MPs gained by regularly "flipping" the status of their first and second homes. If, as it appears, MPs were within their legal rights to designate one and the same residence as "secondary" in order to maximise their allowances as an MP, and "primary" in order to attract Capital Gains Tax exemption, this defies both logic and fairness. MPs' money is taxpayers' money, and their obligations should be the same as every other citizen's.