That YouTube video of Gordon Brown trying to explain his policy on MPs’ pay looks like going down as his comic epitaph. Rather like James Callaghan at Guadeloupe saying “crisis, what crisis?” in 1978, or Thatcher elbowing John Sergeant aside at the Paris Summit in 1990, it’s the one that will run and run. No politician since Richard Nixon has looked so shifty on camera. Partly, it was that plastic smile that the PM plants on his face at inappropriate moments, as if someone other than he is in charge of his facial muscles.
But it was also the sheer audacity of trying to bounce parliament and his party this week into endorsing a new scheme of MPs’ allowances which is actually worse than the existing discredited system and likely to cost more.
There was no way that a flat-fee system – known as “sign on and sod off” in Brussels – was going to allay public concern about the misuse of public funds. Nowadays everyone, even journalists, has to furnish receipts before claiming expenses, and the public cannot understand why MPs should be treated any differently. It was the revelation that MPs could put all manner of items from bath plugs to porn movies on expenses, no questions asked, that brought about the crisis in the first place.
Brown has been forced to dump his own plan to stave off a humiliating defeat in the Commons vote later this week. He still appears to favour a flat-rate fee, albeit one requiring MPs actually to stay overnight when they claim it. This will not work because it still fails the test of transparency. I don’t understand why they don’t just introduce the system in operation in the Scottish Parliament where everything is open and above board, and where parliamentary expenses are no longer a political issue.
Instead, there is talk of resignations in July when the public finally learn what MPs have been up to. Many have been using their £24,000 second-home allowance to leverage multiple mortgages and have become property developers owning second, third and fourth homes yielding hundreds of thousands in capital gains. Hardly surprising that MPs were relaxed about the house price bubble when so many of them were making so much money out of it. I’m sorry, guys, but the party is over. Wake up to the age of thrift.