Conservative Diary

« AV can be defeated if voters go into the polling booth thinking of Nick Clegg, broken promises and tuition fees | Main | A Good Week for Nick Herbert, Another Bad Week for Ken Clarke »

The Prime Minister champions expenses reform, but moves simultaneously to kill the Afriyie Bill today

by Paul Goodman

AFRIYIE ADAM I'm not an expert on ponds, but suspect that what goes on beneath their surface can be as important to their future as what takes place above it.  This is certainly true of yesterday's release of the latest tranche of MPs' expenses.  Above the water, detail entrances the eye, as dragonflies hover and snails crawl: a rejected Big Society lunch claim here, a spurned £25 bill for taxi receipts there.  But below it, unseen and unheard, lurk the pike, pursuing their designs.  To the inquisitive watcher, all these movements, after a while, begin to assume the pattern of a dance.

Here's George Young, the unexcited, understated Leader of the Commons, who was mauled by enraged Conservative MPs the Wednesday after the release of the last series of their expenses, at the weekly meeting of the 1922 Committee.  There's David Cameron who, exactly a week later, addressed the '22 in response,  saying that "IPSA must change, or it will be changed."  There goes Sir George again, in pursuit of IPSA, saying that it is "at best distracting, and at worst impeding, MPs from doing their job".  And here comes Sir Ian Kennedy, IPSA's Chairman, insisting that it will make the "right judgements... at our own pace".

I believe that if one wants a high-turnover Commons, it should keep a system based on receipts, and that if one one wants a lower-turnover one, it should move to flat-rate allowances (with the proviso that such a change must give the taxpayer a better deal).  Either way, the Prime Minister is beset by predators.  If he backs a move to allowances, he'd be scragged by furious voters and an even more furious media, to whom expenses story are an irreplacable diet of roots and bugs.  But if he doesn't, he risks the revolts that bubble over the EU, criminal justice and human rights boiling over.

Reports this morning suggest a compromise: a better deal for MPs' families, concessions for MPs outside London and - crucially - the continuous issue of expenses data, to halt the ritual runs of the gauntlet that some MPs believe they endure from their local media on staggered publication.  It remains to be seen whether this is enough to calm the commotion.  Whether so or not, the Prime Minister seems determined to close off one route today, when Adam Afriyie's Bill on expenses reform returns to the Commons.  Jonathan's previously written about the motion based on it which the House passed.

One senior source told me that the Bill "doesn't represent a sensible way forward".  There are doubts, apparently, about its costings.  But while the official channels say that it's up to the Commons to find a way forward, this morning's headlines prove that Cameron doesn't think so.  He clearly believes that no Prime Minister, in the wake of what happened to his predecessor over MPs' expenses, should fail to give a lead, and that he'd be damned for irresolution and prevarication if he claimed that the system was the legislature's business, not his.  It follows that, in his view, the matter can't be left to a backbench bill.

Afriyie argues that the Commons shouldn't become a preserve of the wealthy and fanatical - meet a kind of ecological cleansing, if you like - and that his Bill should be allowed to go into Committee.  He warns that “there is growing sense of "them and us" among MPs", and that the Government should have the courage to allow the Bill to deliver a solution without the usual debilitating party political shenanigans, before growing levels of discontent begin to affect party discipline and the work of parliament is undermined".  His Bill representa a route to reform.  It will be a pity if it's strangle this morning by a Whip unwillingly crying "Object" under instruction from Number 10.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.