Rod Liddle

Even if the system’s to blame, no one forced MPs to milk it

Rod Liddle says that Sarah Teather, the righteous young Lib Dem MP who refused to claim for a second home, proves that it wasn’t mandatory for MPs to fleece us

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Rod Liddle says that Sarah Teather, the righteous young Lib Dem MP who refused to claim for a second home, proves that it wasn’t mandatory for MPs to fleece us

The worst case of expenses fraud I ever encountered as a journalist came when I worked for the BBC and a foreign correspondent claimed a few hundred quid for a lawnmower. This created a bit of a scandal and the chap was quite speedily sacked. Claiming for a lawnmower was considered not really on at the best of times, but especially so when you lived in a third-floor apartment.

And then, back in the early 1980s, a mate of mine on a regional newspaper invented an entire town from which he would file the most astonishing and lubricious copy, but this little sliver of fraud was not done in order to extort expenses, but for the sake of fun and perhaps professional advancement. I think he now works for the Daily Mail.

Quite a few people have ventured that it is a bit rum of journalists to claim the moral high ground when writing about the MP expenses scandal, not least the most overrated man in Britain, the bipolar Labour luvvie Stephen Fry. But I’m a fairly despicable human being and it has never, ever occurred to me to steal in such a manner, and I do not know many who have. Those who did might have claimed for a fictional lunch now and again — but never, to my knowledge, for a house. Or for their entire grocery bills for the year, or for a Jacuzzi, or a moat. I suppose some might have done if they’d thought they could get away with it, but then they were in the less fortunate position of not having drawn up their own rules for expense claims.

Journalists certainly have a case to answer, mind, as we all flail around wondering who the hell we can possibly vote for now. There are one or two MPs who had been trying to interest Fleet Street in this captivating story of greed and venality long before the Daily Telegraph utilised the more recently favoured investigative journalistic technique of buying all the details from someone. Perhaps it all seemed like too much hard work, or it was impossible to imagine the sheer breadth and scale of the corruption (and thus the extent of the story). Certainly, again, there were plenty of journalists supposedly in the know who insisted that while one or two MPs might be a bit cavalier with their expenses, the vast majority were honest, decent, upright and underpaid, and in their difficult jobs because they wished to — what’s the phrase? — make a difference to people’s lives in a very real sense. This was partly the lobby correspondents — and the Guardian’s Michael White had his calculator out earlier this week to reassure us that it was only ‘one in eight’ of the MPs who were defrauding us. Well, one in eight so far. You keep a tally, mate.

But then there were those other journalists — serious, high-minded, leftish chaps — who for the best part of a decade have berated their colleagues and the public about the corrosive effect upon our democracy of constant cynicism towards politicians. The former commie John Lloyd, currently an editor at the Financial Times, for example, and Steve Richards of the Independent and the BBC. Lloyd wrote an elegant little book called What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics in which he argued that politics had become a degraded profession, rendered so by a cynical media which thought of politicians as devious people, a media which was ‘ravenous’ for stories of splits and scandals. Not nearly ravenous enough, as it turned out — at least in part because Lloyd’s thesis was swallowed whole by plenty of journalists at the high end of the market, in Fleet Street and the BBC.

It was an extremely useful thesis, too, for the likes of Alastair Campbell, who complained long and loud throughout his tenure in Downing Street about journalists being more interested in ‘process’ than ‘policy’. Process was something which could be stretched almost endlessly to cover any misdemeanour, almost anything embarrassing to the government. The two gravest constitutional crises of the last 20 years have both been issues of process — the misleading of the House of Commons over the extent of the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and the current extraordinary fury over MPs’ expenses. I wonder if Mr Lloyd still cleaves to his view that badness has been impinged upon MPs by a cynical media, that they are fundamentally decent people trying to do the right thing. It would be fun to hear him advance this point of view right now.

There are, however, a few good MPs, who have been scrupulous with the taxpayer’s cash and parsimonious with their living expenses. This, by itself, should snatch away the straw to which many of the guilty are now desperately clinging — that it was simply the system which was at fault. Perhaps it was, but not every MP milked it for all it was worth.

One of the good ’uns is Sarah Teather, the young Liberal Democrat MP for Brent East, who has been banging on about her colleagues’ profligacy with expenses for a few years now. I was once reflexively spiteful about Teather in a column, for which I deserve a good kicking. I think she had said something irritating about Palestinians, but it didn’t deserve my bucket of bile. Anyway, Teather is an outer London MP who does not claim for a second home. In an attempt to understand why so many outer London MPs did claim, I asked her why she had not. ‘It’s something which has really stuck in my mind,’ she said. Apparently, a day or so after being elected she made her way to the chief whip’s office to sort out the usual documentation, at which point she was told that she would be eligible for a second home allowance. ‘A second home allowance — in Willesden Green? Seven miles from Westminster? But that would be ridiculous,’ she remembered saying, utterly astonished. I ought to point out that the whip was not inveigling her to claim the allowance, simply alerting the new MP that it was available should she want it.

Teather has had the feeling that this scandal had been waiting to happen for a long time, and said of those MPs who played fast and loose with the public’s money, ‘It’s as if they’ve been blind.’ She likened the mindset in parliament to that other recent example of mass greed and delusion which we witnessed within the banks and the finance houses; it was simply what was done within these institutions — even though, in many cases, participants could see the trouble coming. They thought they might be immune, one supposes.

I wondered if Teather’s comparative youth — she’s single, no kids and in her early thirties, from which position £60,000 or so can seem a very decent salary indeed — might have made it easier to resist such temptations as a second home allowance and having her entire bloody grocery bill paid for by you and me. She doubts it. There might be something, however, in the position of Lib Dem MPs being, in a sense, outside the system, not paid-up members of the two-party monolith which dutifully exchanges power every decade or so. By and large the Lib Dems have not been badly embarrassed by the revelations in the Daily Telegraph, except for the ludicrous Lembit Opik’s traffic offence fine.

If we are not simply to lump the blame on the system and thus defenestrate that mumbling Glaswegian behemoth Michael Martin as a sort of ritual, all-cleansing sacrifice, then we need to identify what it is about the state of mind of so many of our politicians that led them to believe it was morally OK to fleece us for every penny they possibly could.

My suspicion is that the excision of ideology — and, thus, you might argue, high principle — from the two major parties has led its elected representatives to take a commitment to pragmatics altogether too far. Politics may always have been a fairly grubby business, but it was once a battleground of competing and often polarised ideas of how society should be. Our MPs no longer wish to effect profound social change, even though they sometimes say that they wish to; instead, their jobs have become the jobs of middle managers, and very largely devoid of power too. This might at least partly explain why the Liberal Democrats, who are rather more ideologically driven, have emerged from this debacle less besmirched than the rest — although Teather disagrees with this analysis.

Incidentally, Teather’s opponent at the next election, after boundary changes, is the government whip Dawn Butler. She claims her main home is in Stratford, east London, bizarrely — and has claimed for a second home in her constituency. You have paid £18,000 for her groceries and also for a Jacuzzi to be fitted in her bathroom. A Jacuzzi. Fabulous stuff, beyond the reach of satire.