Clegg's bold expenses intervention

Will his call for the inquiry to be widened succeed?

Nick Clegg's intervention in today's Daily Telegraph is a welcome one. It's hard to disagree with him when he argues: "Everyone is talking about whether it is fair to impose retrospective limits -- but actually, the biggest test for Legg is whether he will take on the biggest abusers of the expenses regime or let them off the hook."

I've always thought a clearer distinction needs to be made between those who overpaid cleaners and gardeners and those who personally enriched themselves through phantom mortgages, "flipping" and tax avoidance.

But what chance does Clegg's call for Sir Thomas Legg to widen his inquiry have of succeeding? Almost none, I'd say. After the fierce criticism he has attracted from left and right, Legg will have no desire to reopen the expenses files.

The Labour left-winger Alan Simpson became the first MP to threaten legal action publicly against Legg this morning. "If he thinks that the principle of him coming in and retrospectively rewriting the rules would stand up before the courts, then I think he should be tested before the courts," he told the Today programme.

The apparently arbitrary nature of Legg's findings has caused just as much bewilderment among MPs. Why has Douglas Hogg, who notoriously claimed £2,115 to have his moat cleared, as well as £671 for a "mole catcher", not been asked to return a penny? In time, we should know.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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