How long should we remember the MPs’ expenses scandal? Should someone who used taxpayers’ money to kit out their home and renovate their swimming pool be allowed a second chance at being an MP? The imminent selection of a Conservative candidate in Sevenoaks raises such questions.
Selections are politics in its most raw and spiteful form. The battles to be nominated in a seat where your party usually wins are the fiercest, nastiest and most consequential that many politicians will ever be involved in. Because selections matter so much – missing out a safe seat can mean your career is over before it begins – the resentments that flow from these battles can last for years and decades.
Right now, both Labour and the Conservatives are doing selections for winnable seats at breakneck speed, due to the sudden agreement to hold an election. Many of those selection battles are being overlooked by national media outlets, who are naturally focused more on the wider national issues at play in the campaign. Instead, it’s left to Mark Wallace at Conservative Home and Sienna Rodgers at Labour List to do invaluable reporting on some of the most important developments in politics.
Because selections matter, they really matter. The choice of who gets into Parliament and who doesn’t helps shape a party’s thinking and positioning, and thus the future of the country. Arguably the selection choices the Conservative Party made in 2010 and 2015 were crucial to the Brexit story: the arrival of a significant number of committed Eurosceptics helped push David Cameron into promising the referendum.
Some of the choices being made now could also matter a lot. In Labour, Momentum and the Unite union haven’t quite exerted the influence they might have hoped for, and their chosen candidates have missed out on some seats. The attempt to block Sally Gimson in Bassetlaw looks a lot like an attempt to nobble a strong candidate who had fairly defeated the unions’ preferred choice.
The Tories are making some big, big choices too. In Devizes, Conservative Campaign Headquarters intervened to block Rupert Harrison, former adviser to George Osborne and widely regarded (by Tories and non-Tories alike) as one of the best economic brains of his political generation. That’s the sort of decision that will resonate down the years if – as I think likely, given his abilities – Harrison still eventually makes it into Parliament and onto his party’s frontbench.
Other choices have not yet been made. One is coming up in Sevenoaks on Sunday, where Conservatives are selecting a candidate to replace Sir Michael Fallon in what should be an unlosable seat for a Tory.
The shortlist for this prize seat is down to three: Cllr Graham Clack of Sevenoaks Council; Laura Trott, a former Downing Street adviser to David Cameron; and Stewart Jackson, a former MP. I don’t know Graham Clack but I’m acquainted with Laura Trott and Stewart Jackson. Ms Trott would make an excellent MP: intelligent and hardworking, she was a force for good in the Cameron government, pushing a social mobility agenda that meant people of talent can get on in life regardless of their background.
My memories of Mr Jackson from his previous political life are rather more mixed.
Stewart Jackson was first elected to the Commons in 2005, whereupon he bought a house in his Peterborough constituency. Using the expenses allowances available to MPs at the time, he claimed more than £11,000 in professional fees and costs incurred during the move. He also claimed several thousand pounds for new furniture, carpets and appliances for the house. The claims included money for lightbulbs.
He claimed £304 for refurbishing his swimming pool too. Yes, his swimming pool. Because the house had a pool and Mr Jackson appeared to think the taxpayer should pay for that too.
We know these things, of course, because of the Daily Telegraph’s disclosure of MPs’ expenses records in 2009. I was a political reporter at the Telegraph at the time and Stewart Jackson’s case is one of those I still remember very clearly.
In 2009 Jackson was a member of the Conservative frontbench team shadowing the then-Department for Communities, which oversaw local government. That team had enjoyed considerable political impact and media coverage for its criticism of wasteful spending in local councils, including lavish pay and perks for senior managers. Mr Jackson was a scourge of public sector fat cats, yet seemed to see no reason he should not himself ask taxpayers to furnish his home and clean his pool.
Here’s what he told my colleague Jon Swaine when asked about those claims, for moving fees, for carpets, for lightbulbs and the swimming pool:
“'I believe my use of the Additional Costs Allowance always represents "value for money" for the taxpayer, as required by the Green Book — and at all times I have abided by the rules.
The pool came with the house and I needed to know how to run it.'
Still, he was gracious enough to add: 'I accept that this claim could be construed as excessive and I therefore apologise and I will make arrangements to repay this sum.' He promised to return that £304.
Memories of the MPs’ expenses saga are strangely inconsistent. Some claims are still famous to this day, but others (which many of those involved in the original story found to be at least as egregious) are not remembered at all. Everyone remembers Peter Viggers’ duck house and Douglas Hogg’s moat, but Stewart Jackson’s swimming pool enjoys no such fame. Curiously, it doesn’t even appear on his Wikipedia entry.
So obscure is the claim that I wonder how many members of the Conservative Association in Sevenoaks know that their choice for their next MP is between a hard-working local councillor, a dynamic young campaigner for social mobility, and a man who once claimed public money for his swimming pool and defended that decision by declaring: 'The pool came with the house and I needed to know how to run it.'
P.S. I see that Guido Fawkes, that proud libertarian advocate of a smaller state, is championing Mr Jackson’s case. That piece suggests that Laura Trott was somehow involved in my decision to write about Mr Jackson’s expenses. For the avoidance of doubt, I haven’t spoken to Laura Trott or had any other contact with her since 2014. The suggestion that she instigated this piece or is briefing against a rival is wholly incorrect.