MPs' expenses: a new chance for the Tories
One of the most surprising things about the recent storm over MPs' expenses is that MPs have been surprised by the ferocity of the public's response. For anyone who has taken even a passing interest in the state of public opinion over the last few years cannot have failed to notice the anti-politician sentiment that has been developing.
So it wasn't going to take much to push people over the edge. MPs' expenses have provided more than just a small push. The result is we are now in completely new territory. And while the storm has shredded the reputation of Parliament, it also provides Conservatives with the chance to push a much more radical agenda than they have felt was possible in recent years.
The opportunity for the Conservatives lies in the fact that they are now operating in a climate where messages about Government incompetence, massive public sector waste, and high taxes controlled by inept and untrustworthy politicians, are going to stick like never before.
The argument that ordinary people know much better than politicians how to spend their own money has not had a more willing audience in years.
If the Conservatives are bold enough, they now have a way of tapping into the anti-politician mood by making one simple argument: "if you don't trust politicians, why do you trust them with so much of your money?" While the Left will struggle, ideologically, to deal with this crisis of Government (which it is), the Right can define themselves by the controversy.
It is perhaps strange the Tories have never really tried to tap in to this mood. One of the few victories of the Right in the last two decades was the victory in the North East Regional Assembly referendum in 2004. While the party centrally played practically no role in the campaign, the campaign was run by and fronted by small-c conservatives in the Government's own backyard and ran a brutal anti-politician message to deliver those rarest of victories - an upset landslide.
The campaign was completely defined by anti-politician sentiment, using the slogan "politicians talk, we pay". Not unreasonably, some Tories argued that lessons from the North East were not transferable to party politics because politicians can't do anti-politics campaigns and because it was a referendum on a single issue.
But this ignores two things. Firstly, the precedent set by Reagan and the Republican Party over the 80s and 90s - where low-tax, small-state messages were explicitly linked to anti-politician messages (why is it British politicos only want to learn from left-leaning campaigns like Clinton and Obama?). Secondly, it ignores the fact that the Tories, along with other parties, simply cannot afford to duck the issue. Mistrust of politicians is one of the defining issues of the times - parties can either embrace it or be swallowed up by it.
In the short-term, the Tories need something of a instant quick fix. The only way genuinely to take control in this crisis will be to de-select any MP who has behaved dishonourably and to replace them with new faces, even if that means a significant purge. It won't be enough to rely on spin. But in the medium-term, the backlash against MPs can actually be embraced to drive policy - it will not only allow the party to make gains on issues it was struggling to get traction on, but it will also inoculate the party from a large number of attacks on Government failure moving forward.
David Cameron is not temperamentally a radical and has so far shown little interest in the concept of anti-politician politics so far. But he has responded much more quickly to the public mood than the Government and his tone has been basically right. If he is committed to changing the country - and doing to Labour what they did to the Tories after 1997 - he has that opportunity now.
James Frayne runs Portland's Campaign Unit and was Campaign Director of the North East Says No campaign in the 2004 referendum on an elected Regional Assembly