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MPs’ expenses: a very British scandal

When details of MPs’ expenses were leaked ten years ago, the story revealed a political system that was broken. But nothing has been done to address the disintegration of trust in our public institutions

“I have got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral, but it’s a merchant house of the 19th century. It’s not particularly attractive, it just does me nicely and it’s got room to actually plant a few trees. As far as I’m concerned, and as of this day, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None. Do you know what this reminds me of? An episode of Coronation Street.”

These words from a BBC interview given by Anthony Steen, former Conservative member for Totnes, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 did a public servant of great repute (he remains a leading campaigner against human trafficking) few favours. Steen had been trying to justify claiming nearly £90,000 over four years for the upkeep of his country estate – upkeep that included paying a woodland expert to inspect his 500 trees, tag his shrubs and assess the need to guard against menacing rabbits. It is fair to say that Steen, like so many of his parliamentary colleagues, badly misjudged the public mood.

The expenses scandal shook British politics to its already fractured foundations. I was then editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, which broke the story in May 2009, and ten years on it remains a pivotal factor in how British politics ended up in its current mess.

The profound, long-term disintegration of public trust in our political institutions could not have been fully foreseen or properly understood at the time. The short-term impact of the scandal seemed monumental enough back then. After all, some MPs went to jail as a result. The Speaker of the House of Commons, the late Michael Martin, was forced to resign – the first Speaker to be effectively ejected from office since 1695. Former prime minister Gordon Brown partially blames his defeat in the 2010 general election on the crisis.

The timing of the story only magnified its impact and importance. The financial crisis of 2008 had begun to bite deep: people were starting to feel the pain. At the same time, rumours about MPs making questionable expense claims against the public purse had taken hold in Westminster.

Freedom of information requests and journalistic inquiry forced the authorities to announce that four years’ of MPs’ expenses claims would be prepared for scrutiny.

What was in fact prepared amounted to an outrageous act of parliamentary-cum-state censorship. The claims were to be largely redacted, effectively blacking out the juicy bits. Preposterous privacy and security justifications were offered for muzzling the media and blindfolding the public.

Thankfully, not everyone thought this was in the public interest and a disk containing the unredacted expense claims of every MP was handed to the Telegraph’s newsroom by a public-spirited source, via an intermediary.

We thought we would encounterexamples of boozy, expensive lunches – a bit of embarrassing overindulgence here and there. What emerged were claims that ranged from the comical (duck houses, moat cleaning) to the criminal (false accounting, mortgage fraud). They provoked outrage across the land: a toxic cocktail of anger and ridicule that poisoned public trust in what was a system riddled with corruption and unearned advantage.

The initial reaction of the parliamentary establishment was predictably self-serving. First, there was an attempt to close the story down, with dark mutterings of police investigations and security risks. When this disingenuous attempt to silence the Telegraph fizzled out, there came grudging talk of reforming the system and more rigorous oversight. And, of course, there was the symbolic defenestration of Speaker Martin (my favourite Matt cartoon from the time has one MP telling another: “As soon as I saw what I’d been up to, I knew the Speaker had to go.”)

The chance to make radical reforms to our political institutions and how they operate was, however, glaringly (and deliberately) overlooked. The legacy of that missed opportunity is now clear to see. The UK is still groaning under a political infrastructure that is simply not fit for purpose – not now and certainly not in the future. Too many MPs. A broken party duopoly, propped up by an antiquated electoral system. A system – to borrow from a prime minister unencumbered with a majority – that is supposed to deliver strong and stable government. The reality is that both main parties are in thrall to their extremist wings and parliament is incapable of tackling the biggest challenge these islands face: Brexit.

While the case for a direct, causal link between the parliamentary expenses affair and the vote to leave the European Union in 2016 is arguable, the scandal’s contribution to the collapse in confidence in our institutions is indisputable. It’s a collapse that has led to the car crash that is Brexit and, indeed, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Faith in our national fabric has been torn apart over the past 20 years: an Iraq War (voted for by parliament on a false prospectus); a catastrophic banking crisis that hit the hard-working and the hard-up hardest; the felonious farce of MPs’ expenses; a referendum that was only held in the first place in a (failed) bid to patch together the Tory party; a bungled Brexit.

With that sort of track record, it is impossible to see how the UK’s political system and its institutions can cope with the challenges that lie ahead. Let’s take just three: automation; an ageing population with long-term health and social care needs; climate change.

Automation and the rise of machines are already having a huge impact on jobs and swathes of different types of career. Diabetes and dementia will continue to come with devastating personal, social and financial costs. A hotter world could well ruin countless businesses, disrupt food supplies and displace millions of people. Does anyone seriously think our political infrastructure is remotely robust enough to deal with these issues? Are our political elites – tribal, fragmented and, above all, short-term in both thought and deed – up to the job?

The answer has to be a resounding no.

Perhaps the fallout from Brexit will trigger the root-and-branch reform we need before these challenges can ever hope to be met with the sort of honesty, energy and imagination they demand. Optimistic, perhaps, but real change could be achieved if politicians from across the spectrum – or people from around Britain who have not previously been involved in politics – begin to share a proper understanding of where the national interest lies and where it will lie in the very near future.

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We could start with the abolition of the archaic and undemocratic House of Lords. Then we could slash the size of the House of Commons; we are ludicrously over-represented in a digital age, despite the distance between politicians and electors growing ever wider.

An overhaul of the electoral system is urgently needed to ensure more than just a third of people’s votes actually matter. As things stand, Britain is yoked to a system driven by party memberships dominated by those with extreme views.

At the level of the neighbourhood, village green and town square, we could help revitalise local democracy by repatriating powers so gleefully gobbled up by Westminster over decades, and give councils and communities new ones to tackle modern priorities and pressures.

Above all, we need to establish a proper rule book for our politics. We hear much about rules-based trade and economics, yet our politics remains saddled with a 19th-century system, based on an unstable – and often unfathomable – blend of precedent, convention, politicking by party leaders, horse trading by the whips and the whim of the Speaker and his dog-eared copy of something called Erskine May (a barrister who, incidentally, died in 1886).

The system staggered through the 20th century – and now appears to be going up in flames in the early part of the 21st century. As a matter of urgency, we need to start a national conversation that begins to map out what a new set of rules for our political masters might look like.

That conversation – which needs to engage ordinary people rather than members of the Tory 1922 Committee or Labour’s National Executive Committee – is critical. Our politicians cannot be allowed to govern themselves. Their remit should be defined through constitutional consent. The EU membership referendum more than proves the point. A commitment, written into a Conservative Party manifesto ahead of the 2015 general election, which David Cameron was not overly confident of winning, suddenly became a reality. This resulted from an election in which the Tories won less than 37 per cent of the popular vote on a turnout that scraped just above 66 per cent. Thereafter the timing of the referendum and the question it posed were subject to zero constitutional scrutiny. This was the most important decision the country faced since the Second World War.

Perhaps fittingly, the job of translating the result of that referendum into action fell to a minority government (ironically, one that won 5 per cent more of the popular vote in 2017 than Cameron two years earlier – that’s the system, folks). It’s no wonder that we are in what might be politely described as a political pickle.

Simply stated, the UK remains ill-served by a political apparatus unfit to govern and represent the nation in the coming decades. Ten years after the MPs’ expenses scandal, the time has come for a constitution that works for ordinary people and protects us from the recklessness of extreme politicians in all parties.

William Lewis is CEO of Dow Jones. He was editor-in-chief of the Telegraph from 2007 to 2010

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal