Peter Oborne

Why Labour has signed a non-aggression pact with the Tories over sleaze

Why Labour has signed a non-aggression pact with the Tories over sleaze

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The announcement that Michael Trend, Tory MP for Windsor and formerly chief leader-writer of the Daily Telegraph, is to step down was slipped out late on Tuesday afternoon. The news made no more than a couple of paragraphs in one or two of the morning papers. Trend seems set to sink without trace.

But before he descends into his richly deserved oblivion, it is worth giving the circumstances surrounding his departure from politics a sharper look. Not because Trend was in any way memorable: until his fall from grace, he pursued a political career of crashing mediocrity.

But the Trend episode, in its ghastly way, illuminates modern British public life. It goes far towards explaining why Westminster politics is held in contempt. It demonstrates the amorality and gutlessness of the present Conservative party, and the hypocrisy of Tony Blair's Labour government. It is a morality tale for our times.

The bare facts are as follows: six weeks ago the Mail on Sunday revealed that Trend, a former home affairs editor of The Spectator, had been claiming the very generous (and tax-free) London housing allowance available to all MPs who are obliged to live in the capital during the week. There was nothing wrong with doing so, of course, except that Trend was living in his constituency home. When challenged by the Mail on Sunday, Trend indicated that he had a London address. No evidence has since been produced to support this assertion.

The fees office launched an investigation. It soon announced that Trend had agreed to pay back more than £90,000 of misclaimed expenses. He insisted that he had 'honestly and genuinely' made an error. Perhaps he had; but it is hard to square this assertion with the fees office guidance that 'Your signature effectively certifies that the amount claimed has been spent on the additional costs necessarily incurred in staying overnight away from the main home.'

In most walks of life, the misappropriation, whether inadvertently or otherwise, of £90,000 would be regarded as a very serious offence. Members of the armed forces would be cashiered, civil servants sacked; had Trend pulled off the same stunt in the private sector, he could well have had his collar felt. In the House of Commons they do things differently. After a polite demand from the fees office to pay back the money, the matter was declared closed.

From the Conservative leadership there was silence. Iain Duncan Smith, it seemed, was relaxed that one of his MPs had misappropriated £90,000 of taxpayers' money. The Conservatives became famous as the party of sleaze in the 1990s: under Duncan Smith they seem in no hurry to relinquish the tag. Yet more extraordinary was the silence of Labour. Until very recently the Labour whips office has readily deployed its backbench Rottweilers on even minor items of alleged Tory corruption. In this case not one Labour MP spoke out.

It is easy enough to guess what has been going on. There has been a complicit little deal between the two main parties. Labour is glad not to embarrass the Conservative party over Trend so long as the Tories repay the favour in due course. As one MP fond of military metaphors put it, attacking Trend is an 'area weapon'. But this non-aggression pact between the parties speaks volumes about the contempt in which the government now holds the official opposition, and shows how cowed and feeble the Conservatives have become.

The origins of the sordid little deal go back to the summer of 2001, when Labour business managers decided on the assassination of Elizabeth Filkin. Filkin's crime was to take her job - parliamentary commissioner for standards - seriously. When evidence of wrongdoing came her way, she investigated. A number of Tory MPs - Teresa Gorman, John Major and William Hague among them - were embarrassed by her inquiries. So were Cabinet ministers like John Reid, Peter Mandelson and John Prescott. In many cases her findings were so incendiary that the Labour-controlled standards and privileges committee watered down her findings. Martin Bell, the sleaze-busting MP who sat on this committee, has since claimed that the Labour whips office applied improper pressure to ensure helpful results. A striking number of its relatively obscure Labour members were given peerages after the last election. Perhaps that is simply a coincidence.

In due course Labour powerbrokers - aided and abetted by Eric Forth, the shadow leader of the house - got rid of Filkin. Her successor, Sir Philip Mawer, from deep within the Whitehall establishment, took over in March last year. At about the same time, rules regarding MPs' disclosure were relaxed. Since then there has been radio silence from Mawer. Filkin, during her three years, made 39 full investigations on the basis of some 300 complaints. When I rang Mawer to ask for his comparable figures at the end of ten months, he would not disclose them. The indications are that there have been far fewer complaints and investigations under Mawer, and that whenever MPs congregate to discuss their expenses packages in the Strangers' Bar, it's trebles all round.

Some might argue that Mawer's inertia simply reflects shortage of business: i.e., an exemplary new honesty among MPs. But there is evidence to the contrary. I am told that both whips offices are quietly urging backbenchers not to make complaints to Mawer. It is true that the public are still free to approach the parliamentary commissioner directly. But many ordinary people, intimidated by Parliament, prefer to go through their MP. Those that do may be discouraged.

When John Major set up the office of parliamentary commissioner for standards seven years ago, he promised a new probity in public life. Tony Blair reinforced this sentiment. 'We will be tough on sleaze,' he inevitably pronounced, 'and tough on the causes of sleaze.' It is not clear which posture is the more repellent: Tory determination to stick to their corrupt and greedy old ways or New Labour's jaw-dropping cynicism. It is now sadly apparent that the New Labour pledge to 'clean up' public life was aimed only at winning votes. As the Filkin episode (among others) demonstrates, the government has been concerned to entrench sleaze, not root it out, since winning power.

Michael Trend's decision to step down at Windsor follows anger in his local party: good for them, though it would be much better if Trend were to quit at once. It is clear that his decision to stand down owes nothing to either of the main party machines at Westminster. They have formed a cosy pact to protect their own dodgy deals, fiddled expenses and moral squalor. Meanwhile MPs continue to award themselves eye-poppingly generous pension schemes and ever more lavish accommodation and expenses packages. It is an arrangement that cuts out the general public, fuels cynicism, and is beginning to pose a danger to democracy.