John Rentoul: The mob doesn't care about the details

Because we prefer a good laugh to the prosaic facts, many MPs are facing greater disgrace than they deserve

Sunday 21 June 2009 00:00 BST

Not since the Nixon transcripts were published – 35 [expletive deleted] years ago – has censorship provided such a combination of outrage and entertainment. Yes, it is most invigorating getting worked up into a froth of indignation about MPs on the take. It is life-affirming to mock the counterproductive instinct for secrecy of a junior official (presumably) who decided to black out the words "Sky TV" on Gordon Brown's expenses claim – not realising (presumably) that the same form had already been published, uncensored, a year ago, in response to a different Freedom of Information request. Oh, what sport we can have, being both infuriated and amused by Yvette Cooper, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, claiming £150 for a fine for travelling on a train without a ticket. The floating duck house, the moat: it just goes on and on.

What fury; and what fun. But there is, also, an underlying sense of unease. There is a Lord of the Flies feel to it all. The arrival of the police at the scene of the crime sharpens the judgements of relative culpability and highlights the mystery at the heart of the whole expenses disaster. The great mystery is not why someone blacked out the Prime Minister's Sky Sports subscription.

The higher mystery is this: why have some MPs been destroyed when others have survived, having committed apparently similar offences? I say apparently because it is difficult to calibrate exactly each case on a scale of morality. But the most striking victims of apparently harsh treatment are Ian Gibson, Hazel Blears and Kitty Ussher. Gibson, the MP for Norwich North, was forced out by Labour's "star chamber". He went on strike, resigning his seat immediately and forcing a by-election. Now, as we report today, his local party is revolting, giving Harriet Harman a hard time last week when she was dispatched to soak up the fury over Gibson's treatment. He had allowed his daughter and her boyfriend to live in the London flat for which he claimed a second home allowance. That stretched the rules, because the costs of the flat were not exclusively incurred for his work as an MP, but it does not seem to be a sacking offence.

As for Blears and Ussher, they have suffered for failing to pay more tax than they were required to under the law. Their cases are different, so bear with me. Blears's alleged crime was that she designated a property as her second home for the purpose of claiming expenses, but as her main home for the purpose of avoiding capital gains tax (CGT) on its sale. That may be legal, but it looks "artificial", which is one of the tests for distinguishing legal tax avoidance from illegal tax evasion. In Ussher's case, the house she sold was her main home for both tax purposes and expenses claims, but the designation for tax purposes had been switched for just one month, in order to avoid CGT on the £40,000 profit. Again, it was the artificiality that did for her last week. Downing Street sources explained anonymously – so much for the "transparency" of which the Prime Minister spoke the next day – that it might have been all right for her to have done this had she not been a Treasury minister.

This does not seem consistent, but we never discovered whether Blears would have been sacked from her non-Treasury post, because she resigned before she could be.

But there is a greater inconsistency, which is that George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, seems to have done something similar to Blears. He sold his London home, avoiding CGT because it was his main home for tax purposes, but it was his second home for the purpose of claiming expenses. His get-out is that he was advised by the Commons Fees Office to designate it as his second home. This was, presumably, because until recently the convention was that MPs, unless they were ministers, had their main home in their constituency and a second home in London.

These complexities tend to be lost in the homogenised rage of public opinion. And they are hardly noticed at all in the babbling rush of more trivial stories that have washed over us for six weeks now. Let us go back to Yvette Cooper's claim for a train fine – condemn, shake head, move on. But if you read it carefully, a different picture emerges. It wasn't for her, it was for a member of her staff. It was not a fine, it was an on-board fare. GNER allows passengers to board without a ticket and pay on the train. It's expensive, but not a fine. It does not take much to imagine when such a payment would be perfectly justifiable for business purposes.

Even where claims are plainly unjustifiable, such as the mass overclaiming of council tax reported yesterday, culpability is rarely clear cut. It seems feeble to blame the "culture" of the Commons, yet so self-destructive has been the group psychology that the Georgetown Kool-Aid cult seems the only workable analogy.

In the haste shown by both parties to set up procedures to judge the misdemeanours and hold back the tide of mob justice, mistakes have been made. But there seems to be a larger, systemic injustice, which is that those treated harshly tend to be Labour. Yes, I know many Tory MPs feel hard done-by. Last week, they circulated a letter accusing David Cameron of "Stalinism" – one of the least wounding insults in politics, fixated as it is with the idea of strong leadership. But the striking difference is between Blears and Ussher on one hand and Osborne on the other. There is, of course, one other difference, which is that the sums of money involved on the Tory side are much larger – according to the Daily Mail, Osborne made a £748,000 profit from the sale of his London house three years ago.

It may be only by his speed and decisiveness that Cameron has headed off awkward questions about why Tory MPs, including him, have done so well out of taxpayer-funded property investment. As the Government, Labour is obviously more exposed, but Gordon Brown's clumsiness has made it worse for his side.

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