Brown Doesn't Get It. Neither Did Macmillan

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

Brown Doesn't Get It. Neither Did Macmillan


Byline: William REES-MOGG

Ihave had the privilege of having access to the House of Commons for 50 out of the past 60 years, either as a lobby correspondent, or through the Press or Peers' galleries.

I've seen the House in most of its moods.

Last week I was at home, nursing laryngitis so I had to rely on the BBC's Parliamentary Service, which is valuable, but not as good as talking to people face to face.

I have never seen the House more depressed. They had hoped the recess would have drawn a line under the expenses scandal. They came back to find envelopes from Sir Thomas Legg were coming their way, some of them asking for money to be repaid.

The Prime Minister had hoped Sir Thomas's audit of the MPs' individual allowances would provide a closure to the whole scandal. Plainly it has not; it was one of those reports that opened up two new questions for each one it appeared to answer. Perhaps this should have been foreseen, but it must have come as a disappointment to most MPs, but particularly to the leaders of the main parties, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Almost everyone at Westminster sees that the scandal has undermined the authority of Parliament; they see the necessity for closure, but have so far found it impossible to achieve.

Sir Thomas has added to the controversy the legal issue of retrospective legislation. Harriet Harman, who has handled her role as Leader of the House with some courage, has stated: 'We obviously have to judge things by the rules and standards that pertained at the time.' That implies a criticism of Sir Thomas's retrospective on cleaners and gardeners.

It is fairly certain that the Legg Report, even when it is complete, will not be the end of the matter. There is another report to come in the next few months, from Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life.

In July, anticipating Sir Christopher's findings, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was established. No one is now sure that IPSA was, or is, a good idea; it is open to Sir Christopher to propose alternative means of supervising House of Commons allowances.

At one stage, it was stated that Sir Christopher would be the ultimate authority over future development, trumping any proposals from Sir Thomas if the two were to disagree. Before the recess that was the Prime Minister's view, but whether that is still his view remains to be seen.

However, the great disappointment for MPs last week was that the recess has not changed public opinion, which remains angry. The court of public opinion formed a judgment in the summer, and it lumps together all MPs ranging from the scrupulous to the greedy. The reputation of the House of Commons has been severely damaged. Once formed, public opinion is hard to shift.

As a journalist, I covered two previous storms of this kind, the Profumo Affair of 1963 and the Watergate Scandal, which lasted from 1972 until 1974. …

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Brown Doesn't Get It. Neither Did Macmillan
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