At the height of the conflagration over MPs' expenses earlier this year, Gordon Brown turned firefighter. The Prime Minister announced that he would ask the retired civil service mandarin, Sir Thomas Legg, to examine the expenses claims of every MP, going back four years, and root out any abuses.
That process is now reaching its conclusion. On their first day back at Westminster yesterday, hundreds of MPs received a private letter from Sir Thomas suggesting that they pay back sums that, in his view, they should never have been granted, or produce evidence to back up questionable claims.
But what began as an exercise in firefighting appears to have kindled another dangerous blaze. There are rumours that some MPs, who have three weeks to respond to these letters, are preparing to defy Sir Thomas. Their argument is that these claims were within the rules when they made them and that to force them to pay back money now is retrospective justice, and hence unfair. Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the Commons Members' Estimate Committee, has accused Sir Thomas of exceeding his remit by applying his own view on what constituted reasonable expense claims.
Is the process unfair? On one level the answer is yes. It is now clear that MPs were actively encouraged by the Commons Fees Office to maximise their expenses claims. The entire system, not just individual MPs' behaviour, was rotten.
Also, the authorities' response to the expenses row has clearly been a terrible muddle. Running alongside Sir Thomas's inquiry has been a series of investigations by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. And Sir Christopher Kelly, the head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has been devising recommendations for a new system of expenses, designed to sweep away the discredited old one. Faced with so many different and competing policemen, it is no wonder that MPs feel confused and somewhat persecuted.
They are also entitled to complain that the public reaction to the expenses affair has been excessive. Many in the country still appear unwilling to accept the fact that most MPs need a base in two parts of the country if they are to do their job properly.
Yet rather than feeling sorry for themselves, MPs ought to remember that they had several opportunities to begin reforming the expenses system in recent years, but every time failed to do so. Instead they put their efforts into blocking the publication of expenses records under the Freedom of Information Act. It is this history of inaction and secrecy that made public anger all the greater when it emerged what some supposedly honourable parliamentarians had been up to.
It would be an exaggeration to say that MPs have only themselves to blame for their present awkward predicament. Nevertheless, they would be well advised to swallow their medicine and pay back any sums that Sir Thomas suggests quickly and without fuss. Even if the justice offered by the Legg process is rough and ready, there is nothing else that seems able to put this vexatious issue to bed.
MPs are right to argue that the last thing our democracy needs is another witch hunt over expenses. But another witch hunt is precisely what they risk provoking if they resist this necessary process of restoring public trust in our parliament.