Today's comment: Demolishing the Nuremberg Defence

Expenses

Last summer, during the period that was until recently considered Gordon Brown’s nadir, Fleet Street was astonished as two of the PM's biggest press supporters, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley, called for him to be replaced.

Both subsequently rescinded their demand as Brown eased himself into his new role as Chancellor to the world. But today there are signs that this story might have come full circle.

Writing on the expenses scandal, Ashley warns that: “This is the worst … It's almost certainly the end for New Labour, and it's a terrible moment for politics in general.”

And most crucially, predicting attempts at a summer putsch, she suggests that Brown may have to be removed. “Maybe all that adds up to a risk worth taking, to get Ed Miliband or Alan Johnson – in my view the party's best bets – into No 10. Either of these would have some moral authority when it comes to reforming the system,” she writes.

Ashley concedes that Brown has a record “for fighting on even when things look very black” but concludes that “This is his last chance, and he's in a very grim place.”

Meanwhile, the Times’s chief political columnist Peter Riddell, devotes his column to demolishing what some have sardonically described as the “Nuremberg Defence”-the claim by embarrassed MPs that they acted “within the rules”.

“The real test for anyone in public life — journalists as well as politicians — is not merely whether their actions are legal, but whether they can be publicly defended,” he writes.

He warns that MPs caught out will suffer the same consequences as the worst offenders during the dying days of the Major government.

“Those MPs revealed as being greedy may suffer the same fate in the coming general election as those tainted with sleaze did in 1997 when they had above-average swings against them,” he writes.

The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh prefers to launch a series of staccato blasts against MPs, declaring that Westminster has been turned into “a rats’ nest of skulduggery, deception and petty larceny.”

Elsewhere, perhaps the newly apologetic David Cameron and Gordon Brown took their cue from today’s Telegraph leader which laments that “in recent days it seems not to have occurred to a single MP involved to even consider using the S-word: sorry.”

The paper, which continues the series of revelations begun last Friday, has been accused by Labour MPs of exploiting the scandal for political purposes but it refuses to handle the Tories with kid gloves.

“Any illusion that Tory values would have restrained Conservatives from playing the same game as their Labour opponents has been banished by today's revelations,” the leader observes.

Away from the furore over expenses, columnists are thankfully prepared to explore the major constitutional and foreign policy questions that the political class largely neglects.

Afghanistan

Following a close reading of Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent, the Independent’s Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the paper, writes that the phrase “war on terror” has acquired a hitherto non-existent relevance for him.

Previously sceptical of the notion that any sort of “war” could be fought against a non-state actor, he notes that Bobbitt neatly evades this obstacle by redefining al-Qaeda as a pseudo-state.

“For al-Qaeda has a standing army. It has a treasury and consistent sources of finance. It has an intelligence collection and analysis cadre. It runs a rudimentary welfare programme for its fighters, their relatives and their associates. It promulgates a recognisable system of laws, the sharia. And it declares wars,” Whittam Smith writes.

On the subject of the battleground itself, Max Hastings, writing in the Financial Times, identifies a coherent strategy towards Pakistan as the lacuna in western policy. The irony of the continued military presence in Afghanistan is that it masks the growing presence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, he says.

He identifies a settlement over Kashmir as the necessary preliminary to a successful Pakistani counter-insurgency but concedes “it is much easier to identify this reality than to change it.”

Devolution

While at the Times, ten years on from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, Magnus Linklater examines the balance sheet of devolution. He rejects the claims that devolution would either rouse or destroy nationalism as equally hyperbolic. Instead nothing the irony of a nationalist government in power while “support for independence is down to one of the lowest levels on record.”

Linklater offers a refreshing reminder of the benefits of devolution-it “overturned a democratic deficit that had become destabilizing.”-but fears that increasing support for an English Parliament may yet upset the new constitutional balance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution