I didn’t imagine that last night’s BBC1 Question Time would be an especially memorable one – but my expectations were confounded by the efforts of Tory chairman Eric Pickles to dig himself into a deep, deep hole on MPs’ expenses. And then to keep on digging and digging.
Even if QT normally drives you round the bend, I do urge you to watch the three minute segment on the BBC website HERE. (Public appeal: can someone please, please, please put up this clip on YouTube for the benefit of posterity?)
Not since Welsh First Minister Rhoddri Morgan made a complete arse of himself by refusing to say whether he supported or not the Iraq war (on the bizarre grounds that he wasn’t an MP at the time of the invasion so had no rights to a view), has a senior politician died quite such a slow, lingering death in front of an audience of millions.
Eric Pickles represents the constituency of Brentwood and Ongar,
37 20 miles from Westminster, and therefore has a home in his constituency, and a second home – which we taxpayers are funding – near Westminster. Some will think that fair enough; it’s probably about an hour’s commute by train.
But Eric’s justification was risible: he needs a second home, he told us, because “the House of Commons runs like clockwork”, and he simply can’t be late; indeed, he proudly told us, he frequently has to be in Parliament by 9.30 am. Imagine that! As David Dimbleby sarcastically interjected, to huge applause, “Like a job?”
But I do everything within the rules, squealed Eric. An audience member, who for once was both sane and perceptive, exposed the Tory party chairman’s hypocrisy by asking if Eric thought Sir Fred Goodwin should hand back his pension: “Of course,” said populist Eric. But didn’t Sir Fred also play within the rules?, asked his interrogator: what’s the difference? Camera cruelly cuts to visibly speechless Mr Pickles.
It was at this point, perhaps, that Eric realised quite how much he’d lived down to his surname, and that he really couldn’t extricate himself: “I’m never going to satisfy you folks,” he harrumphed, “because I’m an MP and therefore guilty in your eyes.” Well dug, Eric.
It is, of course, easy to mock. In fact, all Eric Pickles was treating us to were his unvarnished views; and they’re not just his views; they’re shared by substantial numbers of his fellow Tory and Labour MPs, who have consistently refused to back Lib Dem attempts to tighten up the rules, and bring Parliament into the current millennium.
Perhaps last night’s humiliation will force Eric to think again, to recognise that the days of MPs voting themselves expenses that few others in the public sector could ever justify to their bosses are now over. It may do. More likely, I suspect, is that he’ll keep his trap shut from now on, and hope the whole thing just blows over. It’s what most of his colleagues are banking on. Quite literally.