David Cameron may come to regret his hasty decision to back the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, in the row over her expenses. This scandal is not going away, in spite of the Prime Minister’s attempt to shove it under the carpet. To too many people it reeks of an establishment cover-up, featuring MPs, as usual, protecting their own. As well as being wrong morally, the Prime Minister is acting unwisely in political terms. With only a month to go before local and European elections, he has handed an gift to the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, who – pumped up by his apparent success in the TV debate with Nick Clegg – will know how to make use of it. He will ram home the message to voters that Britain’s mainstream parties act like the cosy clubs, applying one set of rules to their privileged members and another set to outsiders.
To cap his error of judgement in retaining Ms Miller, Mr Cameron does not even have his own team on board. Cracks are emerging in the Conservative Party, with Iain Duncan Smith being the first to publicly break ranks. At least implicitly, the Work and Pensions Secretary has backed the recommendation of the independent parliamentary watchdog, that MPs should no longer “mark their own homework” when it comes to judging MP’s expenses. Mr Duncan Smith did not say that the Tory party leader had made a bad call. But, by urging MPs to “do whatever it takes” to end the expenses row, he was not echoing the same line as Mr Cameron. Other ministers are known hold the same views as Mr Duncan Smith, and should speak out.
We should, of course, bear in mind that, by international and even European standards, British politics is not corrupt. Some crooks and drones may loll on the back benches, but most people enter politics in this country because they enjoy the cut and thrust of parliamentary life and want to make a difference. Many MPs could easily quit politics and make more money by pursuing other professions. The problem is that – especially since the expenses scandals erupted a few years ago – a perception has taken root that the political class generally is on the take. This is a disturbing development, not only undermining faith in parliament but undermining democracy, too – feeding a corrosive spirit of apathy that plays into the hands of opportunists and extremists. The system of MPs holding themselves to account through the Commons standards committee has failed to remedy this perception – and has now made things worse, by flying in the face of public opinion with its ruling on Ms Miller.
This newspaper cannot be accused of holding double standards on self-regulation. We have long argued that the press cannot be held to account by a body in hock to serving journalists and editors, and that oversight is effective only when it is entrusted to those who are indisputably free from any sense of solidarity or collegiality with those they are scrutinising. It should be same with MPs. The business of watching over and judging their expenses must be handed over to a genuinely independent body. For the sake of the future health of democracy, justice must finally be done in this matter, and must also be seen to be done.