A maverick Tory MP yesterday embarrassed his party but voiced what some of his colleagues have been privately thinking when he launched a spirited and controversial defence of the parliamentary expenses system.
Anthony Steen said public "jealousy" was fuelling the furore and claimed that taxpayers have no right to see the details of individual MPs' claims.
Mr Steen made his comments in a BBC interview shortly after announcing that he would be standing down at the next election. His decision came after it emerged that he claimed £87,729 over four years to maintain his Devon country house. The payments included money to inspect some of the 500 trees surrounding the property and to guard his shrubs from rabbits.
But his attack embarrassed Conservative officials when he claimed that public outrage over MPs' expenses was unfair and misplaced. "I think I have behaved impeccably. I have done nothing criminal. And you know what it's about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral, but it's a merchant's house from the 19th century," he said. "We have a wretched Government here that has completely mucked up the system and caused the resignation of me and many others, because it was this Government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act and it is this Government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot."
Comparing the daily stream of revelations in The Daily Telegraph to a soap opera, he said: "What right does the public have to interfere in my private life? None. Do you know what this reminds me of? An episode of Coronation Street. This is a kangaroo court."
His outburst embarrassed Tory chiefs, who fear that continuing disclosures about wealthy MPs apparently milking the expenses system has undermined attempts to modernise the party's image. They warned him to stay silent in future – or become the first Tory to be stripped of the party whip over the expenses scandal.
Within hours he had issued an abject apology, saying: "I was so deeply upset with the situation, which resulted in me overreacting. I am sorry that in the heat of the moment I said inappropriate things... about the Freedom of Information Act, which I entirely support."
Mr Steen, 69, is among three senior Tory backbenchers who have announced they are to depart at the next election following the disclosure of their lavish expenses. A barrister by training, he has 35 years' unbroken service in the Commons, first as MP for Liverpool Wavertree and latterly for his South Devon seat. Although he has gained a reputation as a parliamentary loner, many veteran backbenchers of all parties privately share his frustration that they are being pilloried for claims they were privately encouraged to make over the years.
His anger over the relentless media scrutiny was echoed by Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire. "The atmosphere in Westminster is unbearable," she wrote on her blog. "Everyone fears a suicide. If someone isn't seen, offices are called and checked."
Two other Tories – Sir Peter Viggers and Douglas Hogg – have announced their departure at the next election. Mr Cameron has made clear his anger with Sir Peter for claiming more than £30,000 for gardening over three years, including a £1,645 bill for a floating "duck island".
But the Tory leader faced accusations of double standards after he also gave support to Tory whip Bill Wiggin, who claimed £11,000 in mortgage payments against the wrong property. Labour claimed his situation echoed the cases of Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, who have been suspended from the party for claiming mortgage interests on homes whose mortgages had been paid off.
But Mr Cameron said: "He made, what I understand, is an honest mistake. If it wasn't an honest mistake he would be out of the door as well."
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