When David Lloyd George introduced an annual stipend of £400 for MPs in 1911 it was with the honourable intention of allowing men without independent means to enter parliament. The payment was “not a recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not a remuneration; it is not a recompense; it is not even a salary”. Rather, the Liberal chancellor said, “It is just an allowance . . . to enable men to come here, men who would render incalculable service to the State . . . but who cannot be here because their means do not allow it.” The allowance would, he added, enable MPs to maintain themselves “comfortably and honourably, but not luxuriously” during their time of service to the state.
It was these principles that were so flagrantly disregarded by the “rotten parliament” of 2005-2010. After the expenses scandal, David Cameron recognised that his government had a “particular and historic responsibility to rebuild confidence in our political system”. Yet it is one that he and his ministers, and MPs of all parties, have largely failed to fulfil. Should anyone require evidence of why this parliament is trusted no more than its baleful predecessor, the past month has supplied it.
After it was reported on 19 October that George Osborne had sat in the first-class carriage of a Virgin train despite having paid for only a standard-class ticket, Michael Dugher, Labour’s attack-dog-in-chief, gleefully seized on yet more proof of “how out of touch this government is”. Yet Dugher’s words rang hollow when, two days later, it was revealed that more than a quarter of MPs had billed the taxpayer for first-class tickets, in contravention of parliamentary guidelines which state that they may do so only if it is cheaper than paying a standard fare – and that Dugher’s party was the worst offender.
An investigation by the Sunday Telegraph found that 113 Labour MPs, 48 Conservatives, 19 Liberal Democrats, two Plaid Cymru and three Scottish National Party MPs had claimed for first-class rail travel in the past year, a practice that lends new meaning to George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “whilst you may nationalise the railways in one afternoon, it will take a long time to transform all the third-class carriages and all the first-class carriages into second-class carriages”.
Some of the first-class ticket claims stood at £300 a trip, five times the price of the cheapest standard fare. Could there be a clearer repudiation of Lloyd George’s injunction to live “comfortably and honourably, but not luxuriously”?
Earlier that week, 27 MPs were exposed by the Daily Telegraph after claiming for homes in London and simultaneously letting property in the capital, in some cases to fellow members. That the properties in question were often purchased and refurbished with the aid of taxpayers’ money gave rise to the suspicion that MPs were profiteering at the public’s expense – the same practice that the new system, which bans members from claiming for mortgage interest, was supposed to prevent. But, like the Bourbon kings of France, MPs have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The response of several was to insist straight-facedly that their behaviour was “within the rules”.
As such, it was with some chutzpah that the government chose the week of 22 October to all but abandon plans to introduce a recall mechanism for MPs. The device, popularised by groups including the Bolsheviks and the Militant Tendency, was supported by all three of the main parties after the expenses scandal as a means of allowing voters to remove malfeasant MPs.
The Coalition Agreement stated: “We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a byelection where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents.”
Yet after the Commons political and constitutional reform committee criticised the proposals, the government stated that, in order to give “due consideration to the committee’s conclusions and recommendations”, it intended to “take the proper time to reflect on this policy and determine its future direction”. To translate: it’s a non-starter.
Had the coalition kept its promise to “bring forward early legislation”, Andrew Mitchell could now be facing a by-election in his Sutton Coldfield constituency. But where this government is concerned, the former chief whip’s forced resignation was the political equivalent of doing Al Capone for his taxes. Andrew Lansley, the man whose top-down reorganisation of the NHS threatens to overwhelm the health service, is safely ensconced as Leader of the House of Commons. Jeremy Hunt, the minister who showed favouritism towards a media organisation under criminal investigation, has replaced Lansley as Health Secretary. And Osborne, whose Hooverian economics tipped Britain back into recession, remains unchallenged at the Treasury.
When the government that promised “a new politics” is comprised of such men, it is little wonder that the voters conclude that there is, once again, something rotten in the state of Westminster.
George Eaton is editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog.