The People versus Gordon Brown

By Macintyre, James | New Statesman (1996), October 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

The People versus Gordon Brown


Macintyre, James, New Statesman (1996)


The decision by Sir Thomas Legg, charged by the Prime Minister with investigating MPs' expenses, to impose a retrospective limit on claims (including [pounds sterling]1,000 a year for gardening and [pounds sterling]2,000 a year for cleaning), has reanimated the anti-politics sentiment that seemed to have subsided since the frenzy of spring. Having survived the party conference season, Gordon Brown finds himself on the defensive yet again, asked to pay back an astonishing [pounds sterling]12,415. Though by no means the only party leader in trouble--questions remain over David Cameron's mortgage allowance and Nick Clegg is repaying [pounds sterling]910 of the [pounds sterling]3,900 he claimed for gardening expenses between 2006 and 2009 -he is, as ever, hit hardest.

Cameron initially made the running, ordering his MPs on 13 October to pay back excess claims or stand down, while Brown shied away from doing the same with his own parliamentary party. The Tory leader's move led the BBC's news coverage all Tuesday, while Brown's comments on the need to "clean up politics" and "consign the old discredited system to the dustbin of history " were largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the electorate has not forgotten cross-party expense claims for duck islands, phantom mortgages, moats and--most dismally--remembrance wreaths.

And yet still, as the cliche goes, politicians "don't get it". The public, who have to pay their own cleaning and gardening bills, are unlikely to sympathise with claims made above and beyond the retrospective limit introduced by Legg. One MP called me into his office as he rifled despairingly through years of receipts. He summed up the Westminster mood when he said being an elected representative was no longer any "fun", and he might stand down.

But it was left to Peter Mandelson, perhaps Labour's best reader of "where public opinion is", to make the key point: yes, these claims were made "honestly" against "the then existing rules". But, as he pointed out, "they are in the last, painful, and for some expensive, throes of an old, discredited system of MPs' expenses. We have got to get through this in a cathartic way."

In time, the expenses scandal is likely to fade and normal politics will resume. The colourful affair has undoubtedly hit the incumbent Labour government hardest, especially viewed through the prism of our right-wing media echo chamber.

But it will not necessarily determine the outcome of next year's general election, the result of which, contrary to conventional wisdom, remains unclear. The latest Populus poll, carried out for the Times between 9 and 11 October, reiterated that support for the Conservatives is thin; they apparently failed to win any boost from their party conference and their "austerity" package of spending cuts. Their support depends largely on retired people. They have even slipped a percentage point to 40, with Labour up three to 30--and this despite the Sun's supposedly dramatic move against the government. …

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