Author: By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
The crisis over MPs’ expenses may have slipped out of the headlines but it still looms large in the minds of MPs. They have been told by the parliamentary authorities to check their emails regularly during the recess as they may have to justify their expense claims from 2004-08. These are being investigated by Sir Thomas Legg, a lawyer and former Whitehall mandarin. He aims to publish a report in September, the month before MPs return.
The review of all MPs’ claims was ordered by Gordon Brown as he attempted to convince the public he was trying to “clean up politics”. Most media attention has focused on disciplinary action by Labour and the Tories, which barred some MPs from being candidates at the next general election, forced others to announce their retirement and led 182 to pay back almost £500,000 to the Commons authorities.
The Legg inquiry is seen by MPs as a ticking timebomb. Mr Brown’s move is playing badly among Labour backbenchers, whose criticism mirrors the anger among Tory MPs about David Cameron’s crackdown against old guard backbenchers, while letting his Shadow Cabinet members off with “paybacks”.
One senior Labour MP said yesterday: “It is one law for ministers and another for backbenchers, who have been made scapegoats. We have now set up a Star Chamber and it is completely arbitrary. The way MPs have been treated is scandalous.”
The expenses crisis will almost certainly return to haunt Mr Brown on Thursday, when Labour is braced for defeat in a by-election in Norwich North. Ian Gibson, dropped as a Labour candidate after allowing his daughter to live rent-free in his taxpayer-funded London flat, jumped the gun by provoking the by-election and the Tories are the front-runners to overturn his 5,459 majority.
Labour MPs warn that other MPs could go nuclear and force by-elections if they are humiliated by the Legg inquiry. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more MPs charged with breaking the rules follow Ian Gibson after the summer recess,” one said.
Normally, MPs long for their drawn-out summer break. Many have mixed feelings about it this year. Contrary to popular belief, the majority take only two or three weeks’ real holiday and spend the rest of their 12-week recess in their constituencies.
Since the expenses controversy erupted in May, many have experienced a mixture of anger and coldness when visiting their seats. They don’t expect public sympathy. But those whose claims did not create controversy are bitter at being tarred with the same brush as their colleagues who abused the system.
Some MPs’ entries on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, now contain more about their expenses than anything else. Others have become accustomed to jibes about receipts in shops. For those with families, it has been harder. MPs swap notes about their husbands or wives being verbally abused. Children have been bullied in the school playground over their MP father or mother, and even threatened with physical attacks. There have been hostile headlines in local newspapers and, inevitably, opportunist attacks from rival election candidates.
Some spouses are pressing their partners to stand down as MPs, arguing that is no longer worth the sacrifice. About 20 have announced they will quit at the election since the affair began and others will spend the summer deciding whether to join them.
For MPs, particularly those without families, it could be a lonely summer, without the camaraderie of Westminster and the comfort of knowing that others are in the same boat. There are fears that some will slip into depression, or worse.
Dan Norris, a junior environment minister, used to work as a child protection officer and sees a clear parallel between MPs and those accused ? again, sometimes wrongly ? of committing offences against children.
He said: “It is a bit like having a mini nervous breakdown. When the world changes so radically and unexpectedly, as these allegations have made happen for the political world, you can’t reorientate yourself. You don’t know what you can trust any more. Everything you felt was normal has changed. That is similar to the people I have worked with in the past.”
Even respected figures like Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, get a hard time in their constituencies. Hazel Blears, until recently a Cabinet minister with a bright future ahead of her, will spend the summer trying to rebuild her reputation in her native Salford. She saw off moves there to deselect her as Labour’s candidate after repaying £13,000 in capital gains tax she avoided when selling her London home. But now she has to win over her constituents to preserve her 7,945 majority at the general election.
Those who survive the voters’ wrath know that everything has changed, that politicians will be subjected to microscopic attention. Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, told Channel 4 News: “It will cause people to say ‘Do I want to put myself under a level of scrutiny that I don’t trust will be fair?’ That is a leap into the unknown, a risk.”
A huge changeover at the election is inevitable. Colin Rallings, professor of politics at Plymouth University, calculates that at least half the 646 MPs will disappear ? either through retirement, forced resignation or defeat.
Whether that would improve the public image of the political class is doubtful ? even if there were a change of government.
It could take a generation for the trust in politics index to move in the right direction. As one senior Commons figure said last night: “Something fundamental has changed. It’s not going to change back for a very, very long time.”
Heading for the hills: Where the politicians are off to
*The Prime Minister is thought to be planning a break in the Lake District, the third year in a row that he has decided to holiday in Britain. However, Downing St refused to confirm the plan, citing security reasons.
*The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is not restricting himself to a British getaway, as he will head to France and Greece.
*Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will travel to central Spain to visit the parents of his wife, Miriam.
*Shadow Chancellor George Osborne hopes to avoid a repeat of last summer’s “Yachtgate” row (when he met Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska in Corfu and made the mistake of discussing political donations) by heading for Cornwall, before a break in Spain.
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