Sunday, May 24, 2009

Will Cameron get tough with...Cameron?

What exactly is the difference between an expenses claim for duck island and one for removing wisteria?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The demise of "Gorbals MIck".

Quick thought on Speakergate: Michael Martin is obviously not the sharpest tool in the box, but then Speaker doesn't strike me as a very demanding job (it would be a waste of Vince Cable's evident talents) and Martin is not by any means the first rather dim jobsworth to become Speaker. But all that to one side, there is a deeply unpleasant Bullingdon-type Bullying in the baiting of "Gorbals Mick" (the class war is alive and well). It would be a pretty shabby outcome if Martin is singled out for sacrifice while Douglas Hogg (who named Pat Finucane under privilege less than a month before his murder), Hazel Blears, Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, and Jacqui Smith, et al, effect a Houdini-like escape.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

MP's expenses

The bottom line seems to be that MP's consider themselves poorly paid. Of course, they are not badly paid at all - around 64 grand is a pretty sum by most peoples standards (the median is around 23-grand) and some of those in the headlines are also on ministerial salaries - but MP's "comparative reference group" (lawyers, head teachers, company executives, dentists, accountants) earn more, and so MP's, and Ministers, feel hard done by. This is itself a reflection of life inside the Westminster goldfish bowl, with MP's envying the bigger fish, with little idea what it is like in the big bad world outside. One might call this "the Mandelson syndrome". Yet MP's - or successive governments - have been unwilling to vote for wage increases because of the likely adverse public reaction. So instead a basically corrupt expenses system (and an extremely generous pensions system) was put in place, allowing MP's to make all sorts of ludicrous claims, with nothing resembling scrutiny from the Fees Office. It seems to have been made clear to MP's by the whips that this was a supplement to their income, and they should claim as much as they could get away with (and the Fees Office took the same view). This was all intended to be kept secret; but assidous research by some journalists using the Freedom of Information Act means that disclosures will officially been made by the end of July. The Telegraph bought the info ahead of time - for, it seems, a 6-figure sum - and carefully staged its disclosure (Labour first) to damage the Labour Party more so than the Conservatives. The whole farrago is at once hilarious and slightly worrying: it seems that the main beneficiaries (if voters turn away from the Establishment parties) will be UKIP and maybe even the BNP (Although the expenses scandal is not the only factor here; for years Labour - obsessed with winning over "Middle England" - has simply taken what was hitherto its "natural constituency" for granted). Yet the anger of the voters is clearly understandable - some MP's (such as Hazel Blears, Douglas Hogg, Andrew MacKay and Julie Kirkbride, and Jacqui Smith) have behaved disgracefully. The vulgarity of Hazel Blears flourishing her cheque in front of the TV cameras was particularly nauseating (her constituents must be reflecting on how fortunate she is to be able to write out such a cheque at a moments notice). In any case, if she thinks she has done nothing wrong why is she paying the money back? David Cameron seems to have responded rather better than Gordon Brown, at least (as one might expect) from a PR point of view. But then the party in government is bound to suffer more from this (although the blame does not lie with Brown to any greater extent than his predecessors). The Telegraph also kindly gave the Tories more time to mull over their response; and in any case Cameron's response is all spin - he himself claimed the second-home allowance in full (not to mention £700 for gardening, which he is repaying!!) and he is not exactly short of a bob-or-two. Also, the sums of money involved while pretty big by the standards of most ordinary people are trifling in terms of government spending, certainly insignificant by comparison with the zillions that have been spent on bailing out the bankers; and it has to be said that the level of corruption exposed would not figure on the Richter scale in, say, Italy. What's more there are more serious kinds of corruption in British public life: not least the notorious "revolving door" syndrome; and the shovelling of shed-loads of money towards consultants and PFI contractors. A small note: Brown, personally, does not come out of this especially badly. £53 a week for a cleaner is more than some of Hazel Blear's constituents have to spend on food for a week (and Brown could certainly afford to pay it out of his own pocket) but it is not exhorbitant - and according to his sister-in-law Brown paid full National Insurance contributions for the cleaner which, if true, shows him in a better light than many such employers of this kind of casual labour. Brown does not strike me - for all his manifold faults - as someone who is in politics for personal enrichment (although he is in thrall to the bankers) or as someone who gives much thought to such things (now Blair, by comparison...!!). Of course, Brown tolerated the system; but then it goes back several decades. Finally, there is no doubting the seriousness of all this, but I am rather afraid that after the European elections we may reflect that, as cheap and vulgar as claiming for trouser-presses, moat-cleaning, mock tudor beams and so on are, there are far worse things...