Cameron’s False Step

Memo on expenses seen as ‘invitation to deselect’ — The Guardian.
David Cameron has been sailing close to the wind for some time, but, now we see the first (to mix a metaphor) truly false step. There was already suspicion that he was using the expenses crisis to sweep aside the ‘old guard’, and now a leaked memo sent by chairman of the Tory National Convention (and Cameron’s man) Jeremy Middleton, has appeared to confirm this.

The issue is not that ‘bed-blockers’, as they are rather unceremoniously being referred to, should not be moved on. Actually, I would favour a system which created incentives for those whose political careers had essentially finished to vacate the House of Commons. Rather, it is that David Cameron has unmasked himself as an old-fashioned opportunist, willing to make the most of the old proverb about ill-winds, in order to turn a national crisis of trust into a boost for his own personal power.

Tony Blair accomplished something rather of the same sort when he faced down the Clause 4 people. But he did it rather better, and he did it very honestly, and a lot of people who disliked his policy admired his courage in doing so. Lest we forget, this is the Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister who was going to go on to rescue Labour from an 18 year electoral drought.

Are Old Tories the problem? Would the world be a better place if they were entirely replaced by New Tories? It seems to me self-evident that there is value in a mixed House of Commons — not all old, but not all young either. Not all worn-down by experience, but not all fresh-faced and accident-prone either. To my mind — though this is perhaps uncharitable — the acquisition of power and the exercise of its privileges, notwithstanding the opinions of the taxpayer, are the hallmarks of what the Conservative Party has always stood for. Under Thatcher the promise was that a greater and greater proportion of the population would enter this privileged state, which was the promise that lured Middle Britain (coupled with Labour’s abject failure in the Winter of Discontent). Lured it, and kept is skewered. Cameron may wish to take the Conservatives away from their past (although, one wonders, in what sense would they still be ‘conservatives’ if he did), but it is not enough to simply lead people away from something. One must lead them into something else. And it is this ‘something else’ which Cameron has failed to articulate.

To listen to him, one would imagine that New Conservatives are a posh branch of the Liberal Democrats. Green, clean, reformist, interested in the common man. The sort of local party you find in Winchester or Harrow. But — if you read Conservative Home — there seems to be no spirit of warming to the actual Liberal Democrats. The ‘Limp Dems’, they like to call us, accusing us of underhand tactics with out ‘Lib Dems winning here’ campaigns. Hatred of the Lib Dems seems to burn hotter than at any time since the 1930s.

There was a very clear neo-conservative ideology — almost a theology — set out in the Reagan-Bush years, and applied in the subsequent George W years. But that ideology is now largely identified with the trickle down approach of Thatcher-Reagan, and is surely one of the things that Cameron is trying to get away from. There was an older, kinder conservative ideology in the days of Ted Heath. But Cameron is clearly not advocating returning to that.

If he’s leading them forwards, where is ‘forwards’? According to Eric Pickles, 3,000 ordinary members of the public have written to him asking to be Conservative MPs. Evidently, those are 3,000 members of the public who believe they can do a better job than the current Conservative MPs. But what do those 3,000 believe? Do they believe anything, or have they concluded that the life of an MP is so easy that they have all the qualities needed, and ideology can be sorted out later. Because, truly, David Cameron has not told us what kind of Conservative party he expects, except that it will be a ‘better’ one. He has not told us what kind of MPs he expects, except that they will be more ‘honest’. He has not told us what kind of country he would like Britain to become. In as much as he has told us anything, it is contradictory. A Britain where taxes are lower, but spending is the same as Labour’s. A Britain which is more inclusive, but at the same time more anti-foreigner (or, at least, anti-European). A Britain which doesn’t allow banks to pull the economy down, but which simultaneously allows them to ‘flourish’ with less red-tape. Perhaps it is unfair to hang on Mr Cameron the promises he made before the credit-crunch came along. But, equally, if his policies were not suitable for a long-expected (at least by Vince Cable) and much predicted (again, by Lib-Dem Vince Cable) economic contraction, there is a real question about how valid or useful they were to start with. If David Cameron’s policy is no more than saying what is popular at the time he says it, then a Cameron Britain would lurch from one opportunistic position to another. Cameron leading Britain during a recession would be bad enough. Cameron leading Britain through a boom period would be recipe for disaster: he would stoke the economy far more than Gordon Brown ever did, creating the conditions for unwise investment and unbridled risk which have brought the world to its knees. We may not survive another such crisis.

No, ultimately, Cameron’s false step is not that he has angered time-served Tory backbenchers, but that he has revealed himself as a political opportunist.

Amid all the furore over expenses, it is political opportunism which we, as a nation, can least afford.

In the right direction

MPs with outside interests could be paid lower salary — The Times. Bill Cockburn, head of the Senior Salaries Review Board, has suggested that MPs with outside interests could be paid at a lower rate than ‘full time’ MPs. But Tories, who have disproportionately more outside incomes than MPs of other parties, are already opposing the suggestion.

The simple truth is that, in any other walk of life, a member of staff who is not available for work for the contracted amount of time is paid at a lower rate. Of course, many constituency voters might baulk at the fact that their MP was only part-time — if they knew about it. Although website www.theyworkforyou.com attempts to track MP outside employments, it will only be from 1 July this year that MPs are required to disclose them. Naturally, many MPs are now curtailing their outside interests to limit that damage this disclosure will bring.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. In my opinion, an MP who works an outside job, or who benefits as a company director (remembering that most companies want MPs as directors because they think it will benefit them) is not concentrating fully on the job.

Actually, I feel that differential salaries is only a step in the right direction. Who should decide which constituencies get part-time MPs, and which get full time MPs? Or should a part-time MP job-share with another part-time MP? In that case, which of them would get to vote on which issues, or would their votes only count for half? Surely the only logical solution is to ban MPs from outside interests all together. If we are to recover any kind of trust at all, we must absolutely decouple money from politics.

What would actually make the most sense would be to freeze a new MP’s assets when they entered parliament, and unfreeze them — fully index linked — when they left. If properly structured, there could be serious incentives to quit. If MPs lived simply as MPs, a generous pension would help those who realised that they had essentially finished what they joined the House for to move on, rather than hanging in for as long as possible, which is what many superannuated politicians seem to do now.

It’s often said that paying any less than the current salary would not attract the ‘right’ kind of people. Evidently there is a kind of person who can be had for £66,000 a year, but not for less. From my point of view, someone who believes that they should be allowed to supplement this income by spending less time on their duties is not remotely the ‘right’ kind of person. Whether they supplement their income through property speculation, or through milking the expenses train, or through outside jobs, what we are talking about is simply greed. And, in my book, greed is not the qualification which sets a man or woman apart as the person who should serve the public in Westminster.

But differential pay is a step in the right direction — provided that the differential is sufficient that the MP makes no profit from outside interests at all.

Money and power may mix now, but they should not in future.

Legit and illegit – expense omissions

MP Expenses claims – www.parliament.uk.
Here’s the list of what parliament has decided should be omitted from today’s expenses disclosures:

  • Rejected claims
  • Any residential address
  • Regular travel patterns
  • Names of anyone delivering goods to homes
  • Money spent on security
  • Hotels or guest houses used
  • Letters/emails to Fees Office
  • Bank/credit card statements
  • Phone numbers on itemised bills
  • Personal items not claimed for
  • Staff names and addresses
  • Bank/Giro details
  • Landlord
  • or mortgage provider
  • Photocopies of cheques
  • Signatures
  • Reference numbers ie NI
  • Legit, or not legit? Heather Brooke — lest we forget, the journalist who actually pressed for all this to come into the open, long before the Daily Telegraph took an interest — is none too impressed. “I can see that avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor of what’s been deleted,” was her comment.

    Here are my views on what should and should not have been omitted:
    [table id=1 /]

    If you look at the actual expenses for MPs, it’s clear that the omission of details with no inclusion of covering details — for example, a general postcode rather than an exact address, mean that we have almost no power to scrutinise. We would not have seen, for example, where the fabled house of Boris Johnson was which was inside his constituency and yet more than 50 miles from London (Henley on Thames is 36 miles from London — perhaps he was confusing it with Henley in Arden, which is in my constituency Stratford on Avon). We would also not have seen the occasions when neither the MPs first nor second home was in the constituency or in London, nor would we have been able to identify flipping, or most of the other abuses.

    This is simply not good enough. How does Parliament expect to restore public trust if it refuses to disclose the details which would exonerate at least a proportion of MPs?

    Perhaps, in reality, Parliament has not yet faced up to the extent to which it has lost the public’s trust, and the parlous state of our democracy.

    Quite simply, this must change. And soon.

    Another mistake

    The decision to publish MP expenses today with key details blanked out is, quite simply, a mistake. But it is a mistake in a long line of mistakes, and it is a mistake which the Daily Telegraph has been counting on and which it will use to justify its own monopolistic control of the story thus far.

    If we were in the situation where an altruistic parliament had, of its own volition and without compulsion, chosen to reveal its expenses, then there might be some case for omitting particular details which might create certain classes of problems. But we are not in such a situation.

    Given the scale of public anger, and the certainty the the Telegraph will publish anyway, withholding anything but the most clearly security-linked details does nothing more than confirm the popular conception that MPs — and parliament as a whole — is simply protecting its own interests. And, worse, it is incompetent in the way it goes about it.

    Only complete transparency will do anything to regain public trust. MPs may be embarassed, but they will either be embarassed by public disclosure, or held up to ridicule and shame when the Telegraph selectively reveals the obscured details.

    We try to teach this to the smallest of children, but the message does not seem to have got through to the political class: it is always best to admit what you cannot hide. Somehow, somehow, a part of me is still surprised and disappointed that neither this, nor its stronger, more principled corollary, is the watchword of our MPs.

    Quite simply, honesty is the best policy.

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