Which of the many MPs accused of defrauding the taxpayer by fiddling their expenses is the worst offender, do you think? We need some clarity on this issue. In the public mind I have a feeling that they are all beginning to merge as one composite beast drawn from ancient mythology — a hydra-headed pig emerging from its second duck island with a tampon in one claw and a porno flick in the other, whining piteously about inadvertent accountancy errors. How should we choose between them? Clearly, some have behaved worse than others. Some have cheerfully gone along with a corrupt system to trouser a few extra quid here or there — others have told lies, cheated and employed accountants to screw thousands upon thousands of pounds from the rest of us.
My own nomination as worst offender is the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell. He told the parliamentary authorities that his main home was in Manchester, so that he could claim a second home allowance for his pad in London. In 2004, however, he flogged his London flat — and in order to avoid capital gains tax, told the Inland Revenue that this was actually his main home. It seems clear enough to me that he was lying to someone in order to trouser a large sum of money from the taxpayer. As a sort of final ‘f*** you!’ to the taxpayer he also claimed a £395 accountancy bill, which included advice on how to avoid paying the aforementioned tax. Magnificent cheek — almost admirable in its effrontery. Purnell, you may remember, was the minister who once appeared in a photograph taken at his local hospital without having been present at the time — his office had him superimposed into the snap later. Without his knowledge, according to him. Most definitely with his knowledge, according to almost everyone else. That caused a stir for a bit.
Come on, you might exclaim — his behaviour is bad and he should of course be sacked and prosecuted, but is it really any worse than that of Jacqui Smith, or Hazel Blears, or Chris Grayling or any of the other ‘flippers’? And this is where I run into difficulties, because while Purnell’s behaviour puts him in the worst tranche of MPs, my real reason for singling him out is that I loathe the man. I don’t want to overstate the case — heaven forefend — but James Purnell embodies almost everything I find repulsive about modern politicians, at least partly as a consequence of my own prejudices. He is a public school-educated monkey whose career, prior to him becoming a useless MP, comprised various vapid and pointless media consultancy positions, culminating in him being appointed to the job of lickspittle to the BBC’s worst-ever director-general, John Birt, in the BBC’s most useless and counter-productive and overpaid department, corporate affairs. Later, as an MP, he was the most avid supporter of Lord Hutton’s whitewashed inquiry into the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly, and the most vociferous critic of his previous employers, the BBC. He is a close friend of that other slippery little meeja lickspittle and bag-carrier, Tim Allan.
So, given my own surrender to personal antipathy, I suppose it is unfair to blame the party leaders, Gordon Brown and particularly David ‘moral high ground’ Cameron for behaving similarly when they decide who should and who should not be punished for their transgressions against the taxpayer. Cameron seems happy about Chris Grayling owning three homes inside the M25 but claiming vast amounts of money from the taxpayer to do up another home and, allegedly, continuing to claim long after the renovation work had been completed. Chris is the shadow home secretary, of course. Cameron also fought long and hard to keep Julie Kirkbride — and I don’t blame him, because she is a talented and likeable politician. Nor has he sacked himself for claiming a considerable sum of money to have his bloody wisteria trimmed. However, Sir Peter Viggers, who simply asked the fees office if his fabulously naff duck islands were claimable and happily concurred when he was told that they were not, finds himself out of a job. Similarly the querulous Douglas Hogg, who did not receive any money whatsoever for dredging his moat: out.
There was a bitter and angry gathering of these plainly victimised MPs in the Commons Tea Room this week. They are aware that the playing field is not level, that there is no justice in the sentences handed down by Cameron; that, despite his epic sanctimony, he is determined, primarily, to keep his friends and those MPs he believes to be onside, and ditch those he believes are useless or even vaguely oppositional. In other words, his response to this crisis — aside from those high-minded soundbites — is entirely rooted in self-interest. It is self-serving and, you might argue, corrupt. His mates comprise the panel which will ‘investigate’ the allegedly errant MPs, including himself. I bet he’ll get a really rough ride. Watch this space, but I suspect it will be a clean bill of health for the likes of Patsy Wynde-Turbine MP and deselection for the likes of Sir Bufton Fascist from the shires.
Brown has been no more objective, no more honest — although at least he hasn’t even pretended to be so. He pounced upon Hazel Blears’s misdemeanours with evident glee and has clearly been sniggering behind his hand about Alistair Darling’s latest (and, frankly, understandable) piece of misaccountancy. By the time you read this it is quite possible, even probable, that Darling will be out of a job, or at least moved from Number 11. And James Purnell and the almost-as-ghastly Geoff Hoon seem to have attracted no opprobrium whatsoever. Geoff, you remember, had his London home registered as his main residence even while it was being let out to someone else, which seems to me sort of fraudulent behaviour on a fairly large scale. Why has he not been interviewed by the Old Bill? Why has he not been sacked?
We are enjoined to believe that the revelations from the Daily Telegraph have galvanised MPs, have shocked them into suddenly understanding that the public has had enough and that their behaviour is no longer acceptable. But the reaction of the leaders of the parties suggests that this is far from being the case; the revelations have been used simply as a means of punishing the MPs they do not like. It is business as usual, then.