POLITICIANS FLEE UK PARLIAMENT
The Independent - By Steve Richards - 16
The House of Commons is often nearly empty, but
suddenly the emptiness looked sinister. Where were they
all? .... The chamber is supposed to be a focus of their
activities, but it rarely is. On the Tuesday it looked as
if they had all fled.
Ten Ministers May Be Gone Within Days,
Said One MP
Westminster became a different place this
week. It was like visiting a once vibrant company on the verge
of closure. The same people were still there, taking part in
their familiar routines, but the darkened context meant
everything had changed.
I became aware of the funereal atmosphere within seconds of
arriving on Monday morning when I passed a Conservative MP in a
corridor. Normally he stops for a brief gossip about politics
and football. This time he had his head down and we did not
exchange a word.
A few hours later I passed Hazel Blears on a nearby street. She
is always ebulliently solicitous. This time she strode on with
that determined smile. Probably she was too busy to stop and
talk, but the expenses saga changes assumptions and perceptions.
I assumed she had walked on because she was embarrassed at being
one of those at the centre of the storm.
This is what happens when a big story engulfs an institution.
Everything is viewed through the new prism. I popped into the
press gallery on Tuesday to find that only a few MPs were in the
chamber, debating earnestly something or other, exchanging words
that no one will hear or read unless they turn to the next day's
Hansard, the daily parliamentary record.
The House of Commons is often nearly empty, but suddenly the
emptiness looked sinister. Where were they all? Quite a lot
of them would be busy on other parliamentary business but the
rows of empty green seats symbolised a crisis which is partly
about the ambiguous role and purpose of MPs. The chamber is
supposed to be a focus of their activities, but it rarely is. On
the Tuesday it looked as if they had all fled.
When the Chamber was more crowded, their misconduct was the
overwhelming theme. Once more the mood was odd as MPs went
through acts of self-flagellation. Normally one side jeers at
the other. Now they were jeering themselves. The noisy
confrontations between the Speaker and two MPs early in the week
were symptoms of the nervous edginess. The Speaker's
bad-tempered reaction showed a foolish insensitivity to the
crisis in a way that meant he became part of the story. But MPs
know that his head on a platter will not purge the voters'
anger. Like the most compelling dramas, the mood at Prime
Minister's Questions avoided easy definition. The main leaders
went out of their way to express their outrage at the expenses
saga and yet there was no real consensus. Instead, they were in
a deranged race to appear more outraged than the others and to
offer half-baked populist solutions. A political battle was
taking place over an issue that transcends party divisions.
Something else was strange. The Commons was deliberately subdued
at PMQs, as it always is in the midst of a crisis, and yet this
was their crisis. They were not gathering after
terrorist attacks [WG ed: the 9/11 terrorists
control the USA and UK governments] or to debate the collapse of
the banks. They were there to debate themselves.
Some of them have retained a sense of humour. On Thursday I
bumped into one MP. "How are you?" I asked politely. "I will let
you know after I have read the papers tomorrow," he half joked.
Another MP told a colleague he had never been so pleased not to
have been in the news. This was a week for a low profile.
Some MPs are going to considerable lengths to make sure their
profile stays low. One asked the BBC for a taxi from Parliament
to a studio nearby. Normally he walked, but this week he did not
want to face the angry voters on the streets. This was someone
who had not been fingered by The Daily Telegraph. MPs are
getting abuse even if they are not one of the ill-defined guilty
The Tory MP David Davies told the BBC: "I
was at a public meeting last night talking about something
completely different, and I thought, 'I wonder how many of these
people think I'm some sort of a thief on the make'." He and
others are trapped in a story that is reported often without
nuance or context. The local newspapers are especially strident.
Some are printing the emails they have received over several
pages or on their websites. The number of emails and the level
of anger are without precedent. A presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live
says the same. She tells me she cannot recall a story where
public anger of listeners is so intense.
My colleague, the former Conservative MP Michael Brown, met some
of his local party canvassers on Wednesday night as he walked
back to his flat close to Westminster. "How's it going?" he
asked. "Awful," was the response. "They hate us all now." If
that was bad for the Tories, try wearing a Labour sticker this
weekend in Elliot Morley's seat where the local paper, the
Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, reflects the rage on several
By Thursday the frenzy in the country was heightening a mood of
gloomy hysteria at Westminster. One MP told me he thought 10
ministers could be gone by the end of next week. Yesterday,
one minister had indeed stepped down. Another predicted that the
next few months will be punctuated with sackings and
de-selections. I also heard some speculation that the three
party leaders will make a move against the Speaker over the next
few days. Was such a scenario part of the frenzy or a
well-informed prediction? I suspect the former, but it is
getting increasingly difficult to tell.
Yesterday, Westminster was virtually empty, at least of
politicians, leaving some journalists in the unusual position of
discussing with each other whether there are subtleties to this
drama that are getting lost as the voters fume. MPs might have
left the gloom of Westminster, but they won't get any more
comfort in their constituencies this weekend.
Day Eight: And there's no respite
Travel for spouses
Andrew MacKay and his wife, Julie Kirkbride, are the only
husband and wife Commons team to claim under the spouses' travel
allowance. According to the Telegraph, both MPs claimed under
the allowance to allow them to attend functions in their
Mr MacKay, who resigned as an aide to David Cameron over his use
of expenses, represents Bracknell, Berkshire, while Ms
Kirkbride's constituency is in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Ms
Kirkbride was handed £1,392 from the taxpayer to fund her
husband's travel costs. Mr MacKay claimed £408 for his wife's
Morley & Hogg give a little bit back...
Elliot Morley is the latest MP to repay expenses after he
claimed £16,000 over 18 months for a mortgage he no longer had.
His local paper, the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, carried pages
of anger from constituents. The Tory MP Douglas Hogg finally
agreed to pay back more than £2,000 for costs said to include
the cleaning of his moat. Shahid Malik, who stepped down as a
Justice minister after his expenses were leaked, has refused to
hand back any money. But he said he will donate £1,050 spent on
a television system to good causes in his constituency.
Tory who claimed has portfolio of 24 homes
James Clappison, the Tory MP the MP for Hertsmere, has claimed
more than £100,000 under the second homes allowance, despite
having 24 properties of his own. His expenses claims show he
billed taxpayers for petunias, geraniums and busy lizzies for
his "second home" – a £375,000 house in St Albans,
Hertfordshire. Since 2001, he has claimed £102,241 under the
allowance. His properties include a farmhouse and a village
cricket club. Mr Clappison said the fees office ruled his
expenses were "not only entirely within the rules but also
within the spirit of the rules".
The saints shine out amid the sinners
A few MPs have emerged as the good guys. Some from all three
main parties do not claim a second homes allowance, even though
they are entitled to do so. Labour MPs Martin Salter, Celia
Barlow and Geoffrey Robinson do not claim the allowance. From
the Conservatives, Adam Afriyie, Richard Benyon, Philip Dunne,
Anne Milton and Rob Wilson turned down the money. On the Liberal
Democrat benches, only one member from outside London, Cambridge
MP David Howarth, has turned it down. Environment Secretary
Hilary Benn claimed only £147.78 a year on food. Ed Miliband
claimed only £6,300 to rent a terraced house.
Above news at:
Second Labour MP suspended over expenses
MPs hit by angry public backlash
Justice minister stands down over 'rent deal'
The mood on the street:
'I am astonished they think they'll get
away with it'