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THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED: UK

How The British Revolution Unfolded: MPs' Expenses

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 - Telegraph.co.uk

 

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 dodgy mortgages.

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 performances.

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 messenger.

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 over.

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 British revolution.

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 flow.

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 Street.”

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 insured.

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 years.

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 their eyes”. 

 

[WGFT Editor: Most of the people of Iraq have constantly known terror since 2003. Approximately one and one third million Iraqis have met violent deaths because the UK and USA brought "Democracy" to Iraq. Death count: here.]

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 disabled husband.”

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.”

 

 

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