THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED: UK
How The British Revolution Unfolded: MPs'
Telegraph.co.uk - 23 May 2009
It may have happened without bloodshed,
riots or beheadings, but there can be no doubt that the events
of the past week will take their place in history as the nearest
thing any of us have seen to a British Revolution.
By Gordon Rayner, Chief Reporter -
Not only has a Speaker been driven out
of his job for the first time in 314 years, but MPs have been
given their marching orders by an enraged public that has made
it clear that carefully worded excuses and apologies just won’t
do this time.
To date, six Members of Parliament have announced their
intention to stand down at the next election, but the talk in
Westminster is of 50, 100, or even more MPs quitting or being
deselected before that date, knowing their credibility has
been swept away by non-stop disclosures of moats, manure and
The full impact of the expenses scandal will not be known until
the general election, which must be held on or before June 3
next year (though more than half the country believes it should
happen right now), but at the end of one of the most momentous
weeks in recent political history, one thing is beyond dispute:
Parliament will never be the same again.
When the election comes we will almost certainly see the biggest
intake of first-time MPs in modern history, perhaps including
significant numbers of independent or fringe party candidates.
But we have already begun to see a change in the culture of
Parliament as MPs struggle to make sense of events which have
unfolded at mind-boggling speed.
Only seven days ago Michael Martin thought he was still safe in
his lifetime post as Speaker, having been assured by Gordon
Brown that he had his “continued support”.
For the previous week, Mr Martin had been slowly digging his own
political grave with deluded, undignified and at times bullying
He had already dismayed many MPs with his refusal to accept that
The Daily Telegraph had uncovered evidence of widespread abuses
of the expenses system, and his determination to shoot the
His finger-jabbing attack last week on Kate Hoey, the Labour MP,
who had dared to question his response to the crisis, led to
growing calls for his resignation, and Douglas Carswell, a back
bench Conservative MP, began collecting signatures for a motion
calling for a vote of no confidence in the Speaker.
On Sunday the Prime Minister held a private meeting with the
Speaker at which he assured him he would not allow the no
confidence vote to go ahead, but senior politicians were already
lining up to call on him to go, including Nick Clegg, of the Lib
Dems, the first party leader to do so.
Out on the streets, MPs who had the courage to face up to their
constituents were greeted with contempt, at best. Andrew MacKay,
who had earlier resigned as David Cameron’s aide because he and
his wife, fellow MP Julie Kirkbride, had used the expenses
system to pay for both their homes, found people turning their
backs on him in his Bracknell constituency at the weekend, and
others refusing to shake his hand.
Miss Kirkbride returned to her seat in Bromsgrove to find the
window of her constituency office smashed and voters spoiling
for a verbal fight. Tom Byrne, one of her constituents summed up
the mood, saying: “They are supposed to represent the people,
not their own back pockets.”
Monday’s Telegraph piled further pressure on Mr Martin with
disclosures about the way in which officials in the department
overseen by the Speaker had colluded with MPs to let them make
inflated mortgage claims.
Ben Chapman, a Labour MP, admitted that over the course of 10
months, he had been allowed to receive £15,000 for “interest” on
the part of a mortgage that he had already paid off. Letters
between Mr Chapman and the fees office showed that other MPs had
benefited from the same arrangement.
Mr Brown’s patience was running out. Rather than backing Mr
Martin, the Prime Minister’s spokesman would only say that the
Speaker’s future depended on “the will of Parliament”. Mr Martin
wrongly thought he had one last chance to save himself, when he
addressed the House on Monday afternoon and apologised to the
public for the behaviour of MPs, but the response from members
was brutal and merciless.
Mr Martin was humiliated; his abject performance was replayed
over and over again on television news bulletins and he retired
to his office, where he held another private meeting with Mr
Brown, who this time left him in no doubt that his career was
By 9.30am on Tuesday, word had begun to leak out that the
Speaker was going to resign. Following feverish speculation
throughout the morning, Mr Martin stood up in front of the House
at 2.34pm and took precisely 33 seconds, and just 76 words, to
confirm that he was standing down, the first Speaker to do so
since Sir John Trevor admitted taking a large bribe in 1695.
It was, as The Daily Telegraph put it the next day, a very
Miss Hoey said: “It’s been good to see the public angry and
they’ve had enough of what’s going on.”
Mr Martin, who said he would also be standing down as an MP,
returned to the House later in the afternoon, his dignity, if
not his pride, a little restored, to announce a complete
overhaul of the expenses system.
“Flipping” claims between different homes would be outlawed;
mortgage interest claims would be capped at £1,250 and there
would be no more money for food, furniture or gardening.
But as Mr Martin left the chamber, there was a stinging rebuke
from his predecessor Betty Boothroyd, who broke her usual
dignified silence to say some ministers and MPs had become
fixated with “the perks of the job” rather than their public
responsibilities. He also faced a backlash from members of the
House of Lords over his expected elevation to the peerage, with
Lord Lawson saying he had “let parliamentary democracy down” and
“clearly does not deserve it”.
Aside from Mr Martin’s historic demise, the steady stream of MPs
having to answer questions over their expenses continued to
Dawn Butler, the Labour whip who has a home in east London and a
taxpayer-funded second home in west London, had claimed for a
whirlpool bath; Helen Goodman, an assistant Government whip,
claimed £519 for a stay at a holiday cottage in her constituency
called Bide-a-Wee, and Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, made his way
through £18,800 of food in four years courtesy of the taxpayer
(without receipts, naturally).
And there was more bad news for Margaret Moran, the Labour MP
for Luton South, whose excuses for claiming £22,500 to treat dry
rot at her third home left voters fuming.
First, Esther Rantzen announced she was riding into town to take
her on as an independent, then the Prime Minister described Mrs
Moran’s expenses claim as “totally unacceptable”.
Mr Brown called for an end to the “gentlemen’s club” style of
policing the expenses system and promised that any Labour MP
found to have broken the rules would be deselected by the party.
Others with questionable claims would go before a “star chamber”
of party officials who would decide their future.
The fate of one Labour MP already appeared to be sealed,
however: the failure by Hazel Blears, the permanently smiling
Communities Secretary, to pay capital gains tax on the sale of
her second home had also been “totally unacceptable”, the Prime
Minister said. Mr Brown knew he could not sack her, as he
suspected others in the Cabinet had been guilty of the same
misdemeanour, but Miss Blears can be in no doubt that her
parliamentary future lies on the back benches, if she has one at
all beyond the next election.
Elsewhere, Douglas Hogg, the Tory grandee who submitted a claim
for having his moat cleaned, became the first MP to announce
that he would be stepping down at the next election
(parliamentary wags said had been “de-moated”).
Mr Hogg’s moat had by now become one of the most celebrated
bodies of water in the world. Jon Stewart, the presenter of the
satirical American television programme The Daily Show, quipped
that The Daily Telegraph had uncovered “the real Watergate”, and
mused that Mr Brown was presiding over the court of “Scamalot”.
Garrison Keillor, writing in The New York Times, described the
Telegraph’s investigation as “the best show in town”, regaling
readers with tales of how “a wealthy member who owns seven homes
in Britain and part of one in France charged the taxpayers £119
for a trouser press”.
Newspapers and television stations from Australia to South
America featured the bamboozling array of fripperies that MPs
were spending our money on.
Then, just when it seemed the expenses scandal could not get any
more surreal, along came Sir Peter Viggers, the Tory MP for
Gosport, who had submitted a claim for £1,645 for a floating
duck house to put in his pond. Although the fees office had
refused to pay for the 5ft high Stockholm model, David Cameron
was incandescent when he heard about Sir Peter’s gardening bill.
After the briefest of conversations with his party leader, Sir
Peter announced his 25-year parliamentary career would be coming
to an end at the next election.
Anthony Steen, the Tory MP whose expense claim for forestry work
on 500 trees at his £1.5 million estate had been exposed by the
Telegraph the previous week, also decided he would retire, but
rather than going quietly, he recorded an extraordinary
interview with the BBC, broadcast on Thursday, in which he said
he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
In the closest thing so far to a “let them eat cake” moment, Mr
Steen said: “I think I behaved, if I may say so, impeccably. I
have done nothing criminal, that’s the most awful thing, and do
you know what it is about? Jealousy.” Blaming the Government’s
introduction of the Freedom of Information Act for the current
crisis, he added: “What right does the public have to interfere
with my private life? None.
“Do you know what this reminds of? An episode of Coronation
Back in Downing Street, Mr Brown was beginning to regret his
comments about Miss Blears’s tax avoidance when Thursday’s
Telegraph disclosed that two more Cabinet ministers, James
Purnell and Geoff Hoon, had pulled off a similar trick.
Unlike Miss Blears, whose recent criticism of Mr Brown had
guaranteed an early end to her Cabinet career, Mr Hoon and Mr
Purnell are loyal Brownites whom the Prime Minister wants to
keep by his side. Whereas Miss Blears’s behaviour had been
“totally unacceptable”, Mr Hoon and Mr Purnell, who have not so
far offered to pay any money back, had done “nothing wrong”. Mr
Brown appeared to have painted himself into a corner.
Thursday also brought the case of Ruth Kelly, the former
education secretary, who had claimed second home allowances to
pay for £31,000 of furniture and refurbishment at her
constituency home, some of which had been ruined by a burst
pipe. Miss Kelly billed the taxpayer, even though she was
Meanwhile Ben Chapman, the MP who had been defiant when a
£15,000 mortgage overpayment was first exposed, finally threw in
the towel, becoming the first Labour MP to announce he would be
standing down at the next election. On a busy day for
questionable home loan claimants, Bill Wiggin, a junior
Conservative whip and former Eton schoolmate of David Cameron,
became the first Tory, and the most senior MP, to be caught
claiming for a phantom mortgage — with claims for more than
£11,000. He said it had been a simple administrative error,
though he had “mistakenly” put the wrong address on 23
consecutive expense forms.
Thursday night brought the weekly litmus test of public opinion
in the form of Question Time, which the BBC had moved to a prime
9pm slot after the show’s ratings had been boosted to a
seven-year high the previous week.
The anger and disgust with politicians was universal.
The first questioner, Joshua Jones, summed up the mood by asking
whether criminal prosecutions should be brought, to which
William Hague replied: “In all probability, yes.” He added that
“public outrage” was clear to all MPs and it would “take years
to create a political system that people have trust in again”.
Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, tried to blame the expenses
system which he had been desperate to reform, only to be put
back in his box by a lady questioner who told him, forcefully
and eloquently, that Labour had failed to do anything to clean
up the House during 12 years in power. Like almost everyone else
in the audience, she believed an immediate general election was
the only answer. A Populus survey carried out for ITV’s News at
Ten the same day confirmed that more than 50 per cent of the
population wanted an immediate general election.
Mr Martin’s resignation statement had fired the starting gun on
the race to succeed him, and Sir Alan Beith, the long-serving
Lib Dem MP, became the first to declare his candidacy, followed
by the Conservative backbencher John Bercow. Other bookies’
favourites included Sir Menzies Campbell, David Davis, Sir Alan
Haselhurst, Frank Field and Sir George Young.
While Sir Menzies, Sir Alan and Mr Davis had already been
exposed for putting in questionable expense claims, the
Telegraph disclosed yesterday that Sir Alan had claimed £117,000
for his second home over the course of seven years while his
wife, Baroness Maddock, claimed £60,000 in Lords expenses for
overnight stays at the same address. Mr Bercow, it transpired,
had “flipped” his second home from his constituency to London
and back again, claiming the maximum allowance for the past four
Ian Gibson, a veteran Labour MP, threw his own future into
serious doubt when he admitted spending almost £80,000 of
taxpayers’ money on a London flat which he later sold to his
daughter for around half the market value. He said he would be
offering to stand down at the next election.
Friday also brought a bizarre intervention from Nadine Dorries,
the Tory backbencher, who told listeners of the Today programme
on Radio 4 that MPs were the victims of a “McCarthy-style
witch-hunt” and that the situation at Westminster had become
“completely unbearable… everyone walks around with terror in
[WGFT Editor: Most of the people of Iraq
have constantly known terror since 2003. Approximately one and
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Listeners bombarded the BBC with emails, one saying: “I listened
with incredulity to the bleating of Nadine Dorries on how MPs
are near to cracking because they have milked the system. I’m
near to cracking, working 40 hours a week and looking after a
The Labour MP Stephen Pound retorted that any MP who expected
sympathy had “no grasp of reality”, but, as politicians went
back to their constituencies to face the music during the 10-day
Whitsun break, Mr Pound summed up the effect of the past two
weeks on parliamentarians.
“It’s like a slasher movie where you come in every day and see
who’s still alive,” he said. “It really is very desperate and
very dark but what makes it worse is that it’s nobody’s fault
but their own.”