Hogging the chamber

You think the attack on libertarians was troll bait? Well, this thing goes up to 11. Douglas Hogg is right, possibly for the first time in his career.

Consider the great kerfuffle about MPs’ expenses. Some of them were in the habit of doing things that were within the rules but looked embarrassingly extravagant, some of them were in the habit of claiming all they could within the rules, and some of them were in the habit of organising their whole lives to maximise their take, often by lying about their circumstances to the House, to the Inland Revenue, or to both.

Obviously, the degree of offence here goes steadily up as that paragraph goes on. However, the official response – the review carried out by Sir Thomas Legg – appears to have been organised around the opposite principle. Legg has said that no-one who claimed up to the maximum for mortgage repayments will be asked to return the money; of course, no-one who claimed more needs to repay the money, because they wouldn’t have received it in the first place. That’s what the word “maximum” means.

A number of MPs have been billed for sums in the low hundreds, but George “Flipper” Osborne walks despite clearing £748,000 and having a different main residence for Parliamentary and Inland Revenue purposes. Click! Ulp! Another fish for the friendly dolphin. Michael Gove hasn’t even been asked for more information; even Julie Kirkbride, who managed to put two houses on the public tab, has escaped a bill. It’s not because she resigned; former MPs back to 2004 are being asked for money.

Just as the Daily Telegraph politely waited for a good day to bury bad news before running the Osborne element of the story, Legg appears to be soft on the top Tories. Instead, he’s arrived at a retroactive cap for gardening and cleaning expenses – oddly, nothing about the famous food allowance – based on an ex ano analysis of the facts. That is, he pulled the numbers out of his arse.

This is where I agree with Hogg. It’s arbitrary and it’s retroactive and it’s wrong. But unlike the fedora-wearing QC and all-round Queen’s bad bargain of a minister, I think there are reasons for it to be arbitrary, retroactive, and wrong. There seems to be a strong effort on to create a false consensus around the following points:

  • It’s about moats, cleaners, etc. Rather, the problem is extravagance, not dishonesty.
  • It’s about Labour people buying TVs. And it’s mostly Labour MPs, because they aren’t the right sort of people.
  • It’s about the duck house. Except when we have a silly old buffer with a safe seat who needs replacing, that is.
  • Nobody really important is involved. Self explanatory, really.
  • It was all a silly season story, and everyone will go back to being proper big-party voters.
  • All that needs to change is that parliament shouldn’t self-govern.

One wonders what the hell kind of a parliament it is that isn’t trusted to run its own affairs. This is an example of a trend of the last 20 years – more and more demands for “accountability”, as long as it’s accountability to accountants. What this tends to replace is responsibility, which is usually owed to yourself and then to intermediary institutions, often elected ones.

The Legg review is just more modern thinking.

The public, sadly, is responding as desired.


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