Many of the expenses culprits will still be around on 7 May. But the scandal remains the great unspoken of this election.
There is a reason….
There is nothing shorter than the human memory. It is months, not years, since Nick Clegg, the most popular person in Britain since records began, was being attacked for stretching the expenses system to its limits.
Under the additional costs allowance for second homes, Mr Clegg regularly claimed the maximum. In 2007-08, the year under scrutiny in the great scandal, he incurred slightly more than the maximum of £23,083 and had a small amount docked. He claimed £10,180 for mortgage, £80 for cleaning and laundry, £1,150 for gardening, £5,932 for repairs/renovation, and £5,741 for other costs.
This was not an unusual year for the national hero who leads the Liberal Democrats. Within six months of being elected to parliament in 2005, he bought a house in his constituency with a mortgage of £279,000 and began charging monthly interest repayments of £1,018 to his parliamentary expenses. He claimed for stamp duty, land registry and legal costs totalling £9,244. He then fitted the house with a £2,600 kitchen and claimed £5,857 for redecorating. The taxpayer paid for carpets, a laminate floor, tiling and sanding, curtains, blinds and curtain rails. He also claimed £1,440 for gardening costs, including work to ‘build a small wall in the rose garden’. Mr Clegg says that when he sells the house he will give any profit back to the taxpayer.
He is not the worst offender by any means, even in his own party. Unlike Sir Menzies Campbell, who tried to justify spending £10,000 to hire an interior designer to renovate his flat at the public expense, Mr Clegg has not suffered the humiliation of being booed on BBC1’s weekly parlour game, ‘Question Time’. On the contrary: had audience reaction been permitted at the Granada studios in Manchester last Thursday, there is no doubt that the clean young Englishman who chose to occupy the moral high ground, promising a break with the seedy politics of the recent past, would have earned a standing ovation for the touching sincerity of his performance. Like a certain walled garden, Mr Clegg is smelling of roses.
Am I calling him a hypocrite? Perhaps just a bit. Sir John Junor, when editor of the Sunday Express, had a policy of not exposing politicians who had sexual affairs outside marriage. He did, however, make an exception to this rule when the sexual affairs involved politicians who tended to bang on about the sanctity of marriage: the old monster had an aversion to politicians who said one thing while doing another. Mr Clegg finds himself in this unhappy position when he sets himself up as an exemplar of the new politics, when he was as keen as any to benefit from the old.
There is a reason why the expenses scandal is not overtly a campaign issue, why it is spoken of only in dark allusions or dressed up in generalised cliches about ‘cleaning up politics’. It incriminates so many that to throw dirt in one direction risks it being hurled back with a bit more unwanted ordure attached. Because it is so cross-party, so universally shaming, it will remain the great unspoken of this election, the details erased as far as possible. But if you fondly imagined that most of the culprits had gone away – deselected, retired, or awaiting trial – you would be mistaken. Most are still in business, or would like to be on the morning of 7 May.
I started to go through the lists of sitting members seeking re-election in Scottish seats. Beginning in Aberdeen, I worked my way south as far as Edinburgh and the constituency of Alistair Darling. The chancellor of the exchequer made four separate second home designations, covering three different properties, within the space of as many years – a practice known as ‘flipping’. So byzantine were his financial arrangements that Mr Darling required the services of an accountant, for whose fees he charged the taxpayer. When I was reminded of this, I shut my notebook with a sigh: I could not face the complexities of Eric Joyce in Falkirk.
Before Mr Darling’s claims defeated me, I had looked at the additional costs allowance claimed by 18 other sitting members seeking re-election and found, among many other eccentricities, the following:
the Labour man who charged £1,200 for ‘work on trees’ in the garden of his second home; the Labour woman who spent £1,400 on living room furniture; the Lib Dem who charged £117 for an air conditioning unit; the Labour man in my own constituency who claimed for a cockroach trap costing £2.99; the Lib Dem who had a claim of £64 for an electric razor rejected; the Labour man who stayed at a Chelsea club during his weeks in London; the Conservative who spent £3,000 on photographers and camera equipment for publicity photographs of himself; the Lib Dem woman who successfully claimed for such personal items as an electric toothbrush and a hairdryder (‘none of these items would have been necessary for me to buy were I not living away from home,’ she explained); the SNP man who billed £160 for cushions; the Labour man reimbursed £122 for a trouser press.
All the claimants in this dismal catalogue, and many more, are standing again. Most are standing in safe seats and will be re-elected. Even Alistair Darling looks pretty safe. The anger of the electorate has so dissipated that there will be relatively few victims.
It is encouraging to note, however, that the culture of ludicrous claims is now infecting the population at large. On Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers’ a man stranded in New Zealand said that the Government should do something to rescue him. Jonathan Dimbleby asked what he had in mind. The man said that, since he paid his taxes, the Government should send a boat to collect him. It seems only reasonable. Since we are prepared to pay for Mr Clegg’s walled garden, Mr Darling’s accountant and my own MP’s cockroach trap, the electors are entitled to feel that a frigate of the Royal Navy is the least they are due in their hour of need.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review