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13 February 2023

Who cares about Tory expenses?

Labour’s scoop hasn't just fallen flat – it has backfired.

By John Oxley

In the corporate world there’s an adage that if you want to get rid of someone, you take a fine-toothed comb to their expenses, as even the most honest, fastidious person has something in there that crumbles under scrutiny. The Labour Party is applying the same approach to the government. 

After spamming journalists with an ominous countdown clock at the end of last week, they have launched the GPC Files – containing records of spending on Government Procurement Cards. This deep dive into government spending echoes the language of leaks from offshore tax havens and seeks to paint a picture of Tory profligacy and self-indulgent government waste. The problem for Labour is that it falls rather flat. 

Government Procurement Cards are credit cards that civil servants use when there is some reason to bypass the usual procurement channels. This allows an official to spend money in a hurry, up to £20,000 in a single transaction and up to £100,000 in a month. Yet the receipts are hardly a record of high rolling. 

There is some fancy living in there – news reports led with stories of ministers spending thousands on hotels and meals – but this was mostly tied to the Foreign Office and official trips. Diplomacy is hard to do on the cheap, and it seems mad to scrimp even a few thousand a night on brokering multi-billion pound deals. Equally, stinginess over the comfort of our ministers when they travel ignores the value of them being refreshed and effective. 

Beyond those numbers the GPC Files are remarkably boring. Sure, we might wonder just who blocked a toilet at an emergency migrant centre, or why the Department for the Environment couldn’t find a more delicately named supplier of dog poo bags, but pages and pages of disclosures have yet to reveal a smoking gun. Most of the entries seem to be entirely unremarkable and obviously concerned with the machinery of government, from training courses to tea and coffee. 

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It’s an attack which has missed the mark and may backfire. First, it invites a return level of scrutiny on their own small spending. Already Angela Rayner’s expenses have come under attack from the Tories, as well as Labour’s use of GPC cards before 2010. It will also empower criticism of their spending plans – it’s harder to argue for billions more of public money when you act like £500 can be scandalous.

This approach throws Keir Starmer and his team’s judgement into question. Once again, they seem unable to land finishing blows on a government that’s already on the ropes. It’s a line that plays into the rigmarole of Westminster correspondents rather than the day-to-day concerns of ordinary voters. Like the MPs’ expenses scandal, where it does land it is likely to spur anti-politics, rather than anti-Tory sentiments. That Labour should place such stock on a weak, double-edged, attack shows a paucity of thinking in their camp. 

The government isn’t free from waste. It spends more than three billion pounds a day – some of that will inevitably be misplaced, malapportioned or simply stolen. Like in the business world, combing through credit cards will show up some indiscretions, but is unlikely to yield great insights. With the polls as they are, Labour can afford missteps, but it should be concerning that it makes them so enthusiastically.

[See also: The civil servants’ expenses files reveal a government committed to waste]

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