So, Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran are to go. Bill Cash is suddenly under scrutiny for £15,000 he allegedly paid to his daughter. And so on, and so on, and so on. The effect of successive shocks gets less and less. Even David Cameron seems to have slowed his attempt to out-posture himself, no longer talking quite as tough as he accepted Julie Kirkbride’s promise of a resignation (she won’t actually be leaving until the General Election…).
But all this is just talk. No MP has ceased to be an MP. Even the biggest culprits remain in parliament, collecting their salary and expenses. Only the Speaker, Michael Martin, will actually be leaving the House before a General Election forces the issue.
In the first episode of Yes Prime Minister, Jim Hacker was advised that if we were to make a speech announcing radical change, he should wear a conservative suit and speak sonorous, reassuring words. On the other hand, if his speech announced nothing, it should be an ultra-modern suit with a brash, exciting background. David Cameron, at least, is playing the modern suit and brash background game. He knows that he has by far the most to lose. Before this scandal, the Conservatives had the next election more or less sown up, with new woes striking Gordon Brown’s Voyage of the Damned government every week. Now, although the Daily Telegraph has done its best to point the rhetoric at Labour ministers, it is the Tories who are easily the most damaged: moats, duck islands, money paid for extensions and electronics, money paid to family members who lived too far away to be any help, light bulbs, tennis courts, and so on.
So far he’s talked a good game, but, as in the past when he has been challenged to give real policies on key issues, he has dodged it. It’s not just that he fails to offer something bold and revolutionary. Bold is not always best. It’s that his ‘nip and tuck’ of reforms do not connect at all with the issue of MP’s pay, allowances or expenses. They are all rebadged right-of-centre ideas for laissez-faire politics. Fewer MPs with more power, more opportunities for the government to distance itself from unpopular legislation, extra transparency for civil servants, who are, in any case, not implicated in this row.
So, no MP (except Michael Martin) will be standing down before they have to — remember that the ones who are ‘resigning’ had virtually no chance of surviving the humiliating gauntlet of local anger, so what they are really doing is an exercise in self-preservation. And no policies have been put forward for how MP expenses should be reformed.
For this is the thorny issue. If MPs need two homes, then, contrary to what the BBC would suggest, they are not over-remunerated, but, at least until the housing market collapsed, seriously under-remunerated. If Cameron or Brown puts forward anything anywhere near as radical as the man in the street would like, it will almost certainly be rejected by MPs who, even if they are staring down the barrel of an electoral gun, are not going to vote to bankrupt themselves.
On the other hand, the Taxpayer’s Alliance suggestion (and mine as well, arrived at independently) for simply providing each MP with a residence in London for the duration of their time as MPs, and not beyond, though hugely beneficial to the next round of MPs, who will not be forced to risk their financial futures buying property in an uncertain market, leaves the current crop with a difficult problem. They will either be forced (financially, not legally) to dispose of homes which may be more important to them than their constituency home, or they will have to pay the mortgage on two homes on a salary which would serve them very well in, say, East Birmingham, but would scarcely cover one home in Tunbridge Wells or Maidstone.
Of course, I still favour my own suggestion.
It is Nick Clegg, whose stature as a man of real insight and penetrating decisions has grown substantially over the last weeks, who has probably got the most sensible tack: don’t let the MPs go home for the holidays until they sort it out.
Because, no matter how much we all believe MPs should not be allowed to vote on their own pay and conditions, the changes which must happen right now, if parliament is to recover any semblance of public confidence, must be set out and agreed by themselves. The problems will not go away over the holidays, nor will they become less acute. Unless something genuine and compelling is decided, agreed and enacted before they break up, then public anger will rise throughout the summer. Poor Julie Kirkbride has already had her windows smashed. But, judging by the anger of some of the people I met today in Stratford, that sort of reaction is going to get worse.
And that would take us into entirely new territory — territory which we should avoid, at almost all costs.