Disgraced MPs should follow Profumo's example

The worst expenses abusers should carry out Profumo-style good works

I am instinctively against the form of retrospective justice being applied to MPs' expenses. Sir Thomas Legg's review seems to have pandered to what Harriet Harman chillingly described as "the court of public opinion". (The court may be with the left on bank bonuses but it also supports capital punishment. I'd rather a precedent wasn't set.) Britain should be governed by the rule of law, not by panic inquiries and the whims of public opinion.

But the debate over the legitimacy of Legg's measures has largely ignored the question of how MPs can restore their reputation. If anything, the repayments only remind voters of the original abuses.

The most egregious offenders, Anthony Steen, Margaret Moran, Douglas Hogg and Elliot Morley, may have something to learn from John Profumo. Profumo, secretary of state for war under Harold Macmillan, was forced to resign after admitting that he had lied to parliament over his affair with the call girl Christine Keeler. His departure destroyed the public's belief in the moral superiority of the ruling class and paved the way for Labour's 1964 election victory.

But after his withdrawal from politics, Profumo refused to display any anger or greivance over his decline. Instead, he dedicated the rest of his life to good works at Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. He began as a volunteer cleaning toilets and later served as the charity's chief fundraiser. A man whose name had become a byword for scandal and disgrace became equally synonymous with philanthropic endeavour.

Profumo, with his long atonement, is now more esteemed than many of his contemporaries. Should MPs wish to demonstrate that contrition is more than a financial transaction they should follow his example.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.