Today three more MPs announced that they would not be standing again at the next General Election, whenever Gordon Brown has the courage to call it. The feeding frenzy that has been kept stoked up by the daily drip feed of revelations in the Daily Telegraph has now claimed the scalps of 11 Members of Parliament, including the Speaker.
This is revolutionary stuff. I cannot think of any other single occasion in modern British history where so many MPs have been forced to retire against their will, other than at a General Election. It seems likely that more will follow.
Undoubtedly some have deserved it but many have not. Few tears will have been shed for a Speaker who was widely seen as incompetent and some of the crass claims by backbenchers of all parties deserve opprobrium. However, MPs who have sought advice from the House authorities and followed it should not in my view lose their jobs.
The power that is currently in the hands of the Daily Telegraph is deeply worrying. Many years ago a friend of mine in politics hit the front pages of the newspapers over a family member who had an embarrassing past. What was a revelation for me, was how inaccurate much of the reporting was, and the worst offender was the Daily Telegraph. I stopped buying it at that point. A number of MPs have claimed that the reporting of their claims have been inaccurate. Allowing for the fact that some are bound to use this as a defence I still think that an independent third party should adjudicate and publish its results. The public would then have a fairer indication of the rights and wrongs of what happened.
I realise that this view may not be popular with some but if we want to protect and preserve our democracy and not see it ultimately replaced by a system that is much less benign we need to tread carefully. Reform – yes; punish those with an eye for the main chance – by all means; even sack those that broke the rules; but it is important to keep a sense of perspective.
We are currently experiencing a political revolution and the public mood is febrile. In the current economic downturn any suggestion that public servants are lining their own pockets is bound to provoke outrage. However, it is important to remember that those who have been accused of greed are still a small minority of MPs. It cannot be right to drag the reputation of Parliament further along the gutter by sensationalising more allowances claims. The Parliamentary authorities should now publish all MPs expenses and spike the Telegraph’s guns. That should be swiftly followed by interim measures to limit claims for second homes along the lines that David Cameron has set out. When Sir Christopher Kelly then publishes his report, it should be debated in the House of Commons and its recommendations implemented without delay.
Suggestions that now is the time to change the electoral system is just hot air. It is the rules that govern MPs expenses that are at fault and not the system that chooses the MPs. Does anyone really believe – even now – that British politics is more corrupt than Italian, French or most other EU nations’ politics?
Next Thursday will probably prove to be one of the biggest protest vote opportunities in recent history. It will be interesting to see how people use their votes. I fear that the BNP will benefit in some areas and the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru may also do well in others. The real test will be whether the Conservatives and Lib Dems will benefit from some of that disillusion which usually hits any governing party more than opposition parties. From the people I have spoken to on the doorstep there is a real anger but also an appetite for change.
UPDATE: Iain Dale has this thoughtful comment.