East meets Westminster: Scandals are not what they used to be
- Credit: PA
There is something quite nostalgic and even comforting about a good old political scandal, writes Richard Porritt.
Remember when it seemed every Sunday a red-faced MP and his long-suffering wife would troop out to the front gate of their sizeable family home armed with a tray of tea.
The MP would then try to explain away the “lapse” that led him to wander Clapham Common or visit a lady of ill repute while the dutiful wife tried to contain her desire for violence.
We can all have a good chuckle when MPs and those in power are found with their trousers – or skirts – down. Much more worrying are claims of influence and power being misused – especially when money is involved.
The expenses scandal still looms large in Westminster and it will continue to send shivers down MPs’ spines for many years to come. The general public has never held MPs in great regard but since the mortgage switching, moats and duck houses of 2009 every move is scrutinised. And quite rightly – the public elected them after all so they should be able to hold them to account.
Why then is Prime Minister David Cameron avoiding new rules that would enable the electorate to recall MPs who have been found guilty of some level of misconduct?
Since that almighty breakdown of trust the public has become more acutely aware of what their MPs are doing – or should be doing. Surely they can be trusted with some kind of input about whether a wayward member gets the boot?
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But Mr Cameron has some understandable concerns. Where is the line drawn? The system would not work if MPs were dragged back before the public every time they yawned in the chamber or were late for surgery. And there are also fears about campaigns to unseat MPs becoming constant and overshadowing their work.
All seemingly valid but all disregarded by maverick Clacton MP Douglas Carswell. And once again, agree with him or not, you have to applaud his fresh thinking and ability to move a debate forward.
“I have been pushing for the right of recall for longer than I have been an MP,” he told East meets Westminster. “The Government promised in the coalition agreement they would introduce one and they have yet to deliver.
“The expenses scandal shook peoples’ faith in the lawmakers but since then things have started to improve. This is why it is so infuriating that the Government has not gone further and given us proper recall and open primaries.
“I raised this issue during Prime Minister’s Questions and I can’t hide my disappointment in his answer. He thinks a committee of grandees in London should be the ones deciding. This is politicians judging politicians. Bankers regulating bankers didn’t work – we need a more accountable system.
“We need a system of proper recall but successive Governments have failed to deliver one. This strengthens the power of Westminster and the old boy network.
“The Prime Minister claims there will be vexatious attempts to unseat MPs but that is simply not true. There have been numerous incidents in the USA and other countries of vexatious attempts but the whole point is they never succeed.
“David Cameron is treating voters like toddlers saying he doesn’t trust them to decide because of these possible vexatious attempts.
“If 12 members of the public can form a jury in a court of law and determine guilt, then why can’t 70,000 jury constituents say whether an MP should stay or go?”
In the past few weeks there have been plenty of accusations – and they must remain that until the full facts emerge – of a very serious nature.
Suffolk’s very own Tory grandee Tim Yeo is caught up in claims he coached someone on how to perform in front of a select committee. He has vowed to clear his name and an MP with 30 years’ public service behind him, of course, deserves the right to a balanced investigation.
But clearly there are issues around the lobbying of MPs and peers in Westminster. It would be simplistic and wrong though to just tarnish everyone who lobbies MPs as bad sorts. In many cases they are doing the vital job of getting all the facts before those who will make the decision. Think of it as getting all the sides of the argument.
But rocky shores await for some because the more unscrupulous of those firms that lean on MPs have been known to offer sweeteners for favours or influence. And money – being among man’s favourite vices – is very hard to resist, no matter who you are.
Mr Carswell believes MPs need to remember the first people they are accountable to are the electorate – not lobbyists or even their own party.
“I think the majority of MPs mean well and are decent people,” he said. “But there is a problem of rewards that we have created which make them accountable for the people in Westminster and not the voters. They are accountable to the whip and end up defending party politics rather than constituents.
“Compare what dozens of Labour and Conservative MPs said they wanted to do when they set out to what they actually did. They are not bad people, it is just that the Westminster system is so corrupted that people end up only listening to the whip and regurgitating the party line over and over.
“MPs must be given much greater leeway to stand up and express what they think. And the House of Lords is even less accountable than the House of Commons, and that is clearly wrong.
“They could have reached an agreement to reform the House of Lords with a perfectly sensible Labour amendment to trigger a House of Lords referendum.
“But Mr Clegg, in all his petulance, vetoed that, and the reform bill was withdrawn.”
There is, of course, an obvious solution. Start behaving yourselves, elected members.