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MPs' expenses are Cameron's perfect storm

by Paul Goodman

  • David Cameron perturbed David Cameron wants to freeze MPs' pay.
  • Expenses present MPs with a Catch-22.  If they claim, they may well be pilloried in their local papers.  If they don't, they'll be out of pocket.
  • If recent Parliaments are anything to go by, MPs will be continuing to work less outside the Commons.

In short, MPs are angry, because their incomes are being squeezed, and doubly so because they can't complain, or at least be seen to.  The inclination of most of them will be to vote for a pay rise, and of very many of them to demand a bottom line on expenses, which can be summed up in two words: no receipts.  This is the logic of the Afryie Bill, which argues for a cheaper, quicker system which doesn't disadvantage poorer MPs or those with families.  It was the first of what should be four annual releases of receipts that saw some of MPs lashed locally, and which, the week after publication, detonated an explosion at the 1922 Committee, as I revealed in detail at the time.  They view this release process with as much enthusiasm as a schoolboy would view a naked run through two gangways of jeering sixth formers armed with wet towels.

But if MPs are angry, many voters are even angrier.  As Tim noted earlier this week, the top political hit on the BBC's website last week was Eric Illsley's admission of fraud.  The expenses scandal is alive and well and stalking the land.  David Chaytor's gone to prison.  Lord Taylor is to stand trial.  There may be further prosecutions.  Times are tough, VAT's gone up, prices are rising, fuel's more expensive, public spending's being scaled back.  True, the party leader who had the worst election was Martin Bell.  Before polling day, there were four Commons independents.  Now there are none, and his network of candidates got nowhere.  However, the results shouldn't be mistaken for a siren blowing the all-clear.  Plenty of reasonable people are angry, even if all angry people aren't reasonable.

All this is, as one MP puts it, "Cameron's perfect storm" ("An event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.")

On the one side are Conservative MPs.  Some older ones believe that the leadership shafted the Parliamentary Party over expenses in the last Parliament.  Some younger ones didn't expect to face a Catch 22 - no, let's call it a Catch 1922: if they claim, they're scragged in their local media, and if they don't they're out of pocket.  Some of them, of whatever age, even feel that they're the victims of a class war: that the leading officers (Cameron and George Osborne) are insulated from the poor bloody infantry (the backbenchers) by their private incomes.  This unhappiness range far, far wider than the irreconcilable right.  Toss them in to grievances about the Coalition, the EU, crime, and human rights, and the chemical mix is explosive.

On the other side are voters and the media.  Receipts mean stories and stories mean sales in a market landscape of neolithic savagery.  Newspaper sales are falling.  The net's collapsed the traditional media business model.  The Times has taken shelter behind a paywall.  The Daily Telegraph might buy the abolition of IPSA - about which it's been sniffy from the start - but it's hard to imagine any Fleet Street paper going along with the scrapping of receipts and their replacement by a flat-rate allowance.  Gordon Brown tried that one: remember that video of grinning weirdness.  We know the headline point that followed his suggestion: "Now MPs want to be payed just for turning up to work."  A Labour Prime Minister was on the receiving end last time.  This Conservative one won't want to be so now.

As I say, Cameron's perfect storm.

So what will happen?  And what should happen?

First, what will happen.

Cameron will offer the '22, and any Conservative MP who crosses his path, a deal.  "Vote to freeze pay," he'll say, in effect, "and I'll deliver on IPSA."  He's already said, in response to the '22 eruption, that "IPSA must change, or it will be changed."  And he's this week launched a charm offensive, inviting Tory MPs to Downing Street drinks, at which he's done his best - in the wake of weekend reports of the Prime Minister "Flashmaning" Conservative MPs - to persuade them that, to borrow a phrase, "we're all in this together".  His speeches at these occasions are unerring in reminding those present of his requirement on IPSA to change. 

The '22, and most Conservative MPs, will probably take it.  They know that if they vote not to take the pay rise they'll be worse off.  They also know that if they simply take it they'll be worse off still - at least in a political sense.  If you doubt it, imagine the scene when Phil Page of the Loamshire Clarion rings Davinia Drudge, newly-elected MP for marginal Sin City South-East, and asks her whether she'll refuse the increase - as Cyrus Rex, Drudge's millionaire neighbour in the safe seat of Chufnell Poges, has just confirmed that she'll do.  Drudge can't risk angering her local paper.  And in any event, there's that tricky seat reduction-related reselection coming up.  MPs can evade this darwinian strife by voting the pay rise down, and demonstrate their virtue at the same time.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll trust Cameron to deliver an unreceipted system.  And even if he wants to, he possibly can't.  The media and the voters will fight it.  Nor, perhaps, will Ed Miliband.  True, Labour MPs dislike IPSA just as much as their Coalition counterparts.  But their leader may believe that Cameron's difficulty is his opportunity - a chance to raise his profile and make an impression with voters.  The Prime Minister must wonder if Miliband will do to him what he and Clegg, at the time of the last Parliament's scandal, did to Gordon Brown.  Downing Street will be searching for some halfway house - such as putting receipts online as they appear, thus ending the process of quarterly release that sparked this round of trouble.

I'll turn to what should happen later today or tomorrow.

For the third (and closing) time, then: Cameron's perfect storm.

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