Chief among Nick Clegg’s grand claims during this election is that he is Britain’s ‘most honest’ political leader.
Chief among Nick Clegg’s grand claims during this election is that he is Britain’s ‘most honest’ political leader. The Lib Dems, he promises, will clean up our politics. And when it comes to politicians using expenses to game the property market or to dodge capital gains tax, he’s delighted to declare his party squeaky clean. ‘Not a single Liberal Democrat MP,’ he swanked in last week’s debate, ‘did either of those things.’ House flipping, it seems, is too gauche for the yellow party. Their expenses scam was a more nuanced affair.
In fact, before the expenses scandal blew up, the Lib Dems centrally directed their MPs to exploit their own claims as ruthlessly as possible for party purposes. Take, for example, a 2008 presentation in which Lib Dem MPs were advised to ‘maximise the amount being claimed’ and wangle taxpayers’ money to fund campaign literature in defiance of the spirit (but not the letter) of Westminster rules. In words that should make Mr Clegg blush, MPs were told that there were ‘grey areas’ in the parliamentary rules and ‘lots of scope… so be imaginative’. And, of course, by being ‘imaginative’, MPs could minimise the cost of campaigning for the party and burden the taxpayer with as much as possible.
One terribly imaginative MP is Paul Rowen, the Lib Dem member of the Public Administration Committee. Inquires by The Spectator have established that when Rowen was a mere candidate, a company called Rochdale Reform Buildings ‘freely gifted’ office space to him. Since he gained access to a parliamentary expense account in 2005, however, taxpayers have shelled out over £14,000 to this curious company, which, on closer examination, is run by local Liberal Democrats and indeed donates to his campaign. In this way, money intended to cover MPs’ costs helps fund political activity. In October 2005, Mr Rowen received a £1,793 donation from them. Just two weeks later he charged the Commons fees office an almost identical amount in rent.
And his ‘imaginative’ use of expenses goes on. In 2005 and in 2006 he asked taxpayers to pay £4,000 to the regional Lib Dem office in Manchester for ‘professional services in support of his parliamentary duties’. In 2007, his ‘Rochdale Liberal Democrat Print Society’ charged taxpayers £6,000 to pay for a share of an envelope stuffing machine, as well as an extortionate £700 to advertise his constituency surgery in the Lib Dem newsletters printed by it. Taxpayers were also landed with fees of £1,493 to pay for billboards promoting Rowen at the local football, rugby and cricket clubs.
John Leech, the transport spokesperson and MP for Manchester Withington, is equally resourceful. Following his election in 2005, he also began claiming expenses for work done by the regional party structure — £4,000 again — and also paid office rent to the local party. Even the funding of his election campaign in the first place seems curious. Between October 2004 and May 2005, he received some £22,000 from Angela Gallagher, a 71-year-old former school headmistress. Having won election to Manchester City Council in 2004, Gallagher donated her councillor’s allowance together with thousands of pounds of her savings to Leech’s campaign.
This behaviour of Lib Dem MPs is not just perfectly legal but also (to use that now notorious phrase) ‘within the rules’. It turns out that while other parties played host to MPs on the take, the Lib Dems gave institutional guidance on how to exploit those rules for the good of their war chest. Rowen and Leech have exactly the attitude demanded by their party HQ. ‘Most honest’ Mr Clegg, meanwhile, has a problem. Having told us that political parties must ‘come clean with the electorate’, he must come clean himself.