No sooner did parliament return than it was embroiled in the latest instalment of the expenses saga. The scandal is, by now, wearily familiar — but it has lost none of its capacity to shock. It is understandable that MPs feel aggrieved by the retrospective rules applied by Sir Thomas Legg on how much can be claimed for cleaners and gardeners. But arbitrary justice is better than none. The House of Commons has squandered its moral authority, and having honourable members forced to repay a little taxpayers’ money is the least of it. This week, we learned that Damian Green’s now notorious arrest was at the behest of a Cabinet Office official who claimed — dubiously — that the leaks posed a ‘considerable damage to national security’. That the government invokes such powers is bad enough. That a civil servant thinks he can order police to arrest an opposition politician is worse. That the police actually comply is deplorable. And that Speaker Michael Martin agreed to the police search of Mr Green’s parliamentary office is unforgiveable. Yet Martin was not just forgiven but this week draped in ermine and sent to the Lords.
The outrage over the Damian Green affair was not widely shared by the public. The idea of parliament occupying a sacred place in the constitution is alien to the average voter, who views the institution with contempt. Just 19 per cent of the public think parliament is ‘working’, according to the Hansard Society, and only 24 per cent say they ‘trust’ it, according to a recent Europe-wide survey which showed Westminster to be one of the least trusted legislatures on the continent.
The contempt is, worryingly, shared not just by the police but by the judiciary.