One of the reasons why events in the expenses scandal turned out as they did was that the leader of each political party was glancing nervously over his shoulder at the others. Gordon Brown’s reactions to the Daily Telegraph’s revelations were governed by the fear that he would be wrong-footed by David Cameron playing to the popular gallery. Cameron’s were shaped by the same fear of Nick Clegg. Clegg himself saw an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to muscle into the publicity limelight they have problems in gaining as Britain’s third party.
Had this not been so, Brown would have pushed even harder for MPs’ expenses to be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. Many people have forgotten that he did so – in January 2009, when Harriet Haman, then Leader of the Commons, tabled a motion to that effect, which Labour MPs were placed under a three line whip to support. Cameron and Clegg, terrified of the public reaction to supporting such a move, made it clear that their parties would vote against it, and Brown backed down.
A similar process may now begin in relation to the suggestion by Sir Ian Kennedy, the Chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), that MPs “give away powers in regulating itself” because “MPs marking their own homework always ends in scandal”. Were Clegg to now take this up, as the Maria Miller affair rumbles on, there would be pressure on Miliband to follow suit. And were he then to take it up, the pressure would then shift to Cameron.
Nigel Farage’s instincts on how Parliament should work are right – he believes that MPs should be citizen representatives, not professional politicians – but he may none the less be tempted to take up Sir Ian’s suggestion, thus replacing Clegg as the first domino on the board. And Fleet Street may take up the idea. The Guardian would leap at the chance of more regulation. (So would the BBC). And the left may be joined by the right. In their current mood, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail may agree.
In this happens, Sir Ian may get his way. But the right-of-centre part of Fleet Street is usually sensible enough and, if it is so in this case, will quickly grasp that Sir Ian is asking for the impossible. This is because MPs must always “mark their own homework” – necessarily so, since we elect them. To follow Sir Ian’s metaphor, they are the teachers, not the pupils: marking homework is thus what they do. (Actually, don’t follow it at all, because it’s a very bad one.)
It will be argued that this problem could be by-passed by setting up…yes, another quango, stuffed with people that no-one has elected such as, as it happens, Sir Ian. They would then be able to rule the roost over others who have won a popular mandate – and step up their demands for more powers. Sir Ian should be commended for overcoming his reluctance to recommend such an anti-democratic course. But there is a double flaw in it that he appears not to have anticipated.
If the scheme didn’t work, it would naturally not be worth the while. And there is a good chance that it wouldn’t: MPs would simply stuff such a committee with their mates. End of story. But if it did work, it wouldn’t be worth the while, either. The Miller case indicates why this is so. The Commissioner, having rejected John Mann’s original complaint, changed tack, and launched an investigation into Miller’s mortgage arrangements.
She concluded that Miller should repay £45,000. She said £5,800. The Standards Committee agreed with her. Naturally, voters will back the Commissioner, since the popular mood is to string the Culture Secretary up from the nearest lamppost. But this simply demonstrates why the ballot box, and not the whim of the hour, should decide in a liberal democracy. The Culture Secretary’s real fault was to claim for a second home that wasn’t a second home. However, she was not alone in that, and it follows that if she should quit than so should every front bench member in all parties who acted similarly.
There is a rational alternative to setting up more quangos which will make decisions that are bound to end up in the courts – at further expense to the taxpayer. Namely, to gradually return to the citizen representative model of Government. Leave the EU. Quit the ECHR. Buttress Parliamentary authority. Restore the citizen representative model for MPs. Scale back their pay. Increase their freedom to earn outside the Commons. Pay a lump sum expenses allowance, as the Times argued yesterday and we have consistently done. The alternative is the triumph of the quangocrats.