The biggest electoral test between now and the General Election will be 2009's European Elections. The 2004 European Elections did not go well for Michael Howard. The Conservatives underperformed in those elections as UKIP surged. UKIP are a shadow of their former strength but the Conservative Party must not assume that a new challenger won't emerge. Our MEPs could be vulnerable on a number of fronts and it is vital that David Cameron acts now to deal with some of the ethical questions surrounding them. Decisive action may be uncomfortable in the short-run but he will build his status as a politician who wants to restore faith in politics. Mr Cameron took decisive action against Derek Conway and must take similar action against any MEPs who are found guilty of wrongdoing. Mr Howard set a precedent in 2004 when Bashir Khanbhai was deselected during his leadership.
Over a number of recent weekends there have been stories of Conservative and other MEPs being less than transparent in their use of expenses. The Sunday Times, News of the World and Independent on Sunday have all carried various stories. Last Saturday we highlighted the failure of many MEPs to provide basic accountability to the Open Europe campaigning group - although the Conservatives are being more open than Labour and LibDem MEPs. This weekend's Sunday Times noted
that Giles Chichester MEP, leader of the Conservatives in the European
Parliament, had paid £445,000 of staffing allowances through a family
firm. These stories should be seen as warnings. They'll be much bigger news in a European election campaign.
This morning's Telegraph reveals that David Cameron has "demanded" a "full explanation" from Mr Chichester. If such an explanation is not forthcoming it is suggested that Mr Chichester will be removed as leader of the Tory MEPs.
It's vital that the Tory leadership get answers to a range of questions. Open Europe's Neil O'Brien has identified three key topics:
- Why are some Conservative MEPs refusing to answer basic questions about how they handle their expenses? Why won’t they name their service providers?
- What “services” exactly are being provided the MEPs “service providers” and who are they employing?
- Have other MEPs or their relatives been paid - either directly or indirectly - by the service providers which they have paid their expenses into?
The Conservative Party's MEP selection process was constructed so that all sitting MEPs were re-adopted. Grassroots members were excluded from what was a centralised and undemocratic process. The party leadership needs to make amends by making tough requirements of the MEPs it has protected. Some MEPs like Chris Heaton-Harris already operate a full disclosure policy - see this section of his website. All MEPs should do the same.