Assume the position

Tomorrow is “our” big day. I know Stephen has just posted on this, and I wouldn’t like to suggest that Lib Dem Voice is anything other than a smooth, slick uni-messaging operation, but I’d just like to have my twopenny’s worth before the revelations begin. You can do that when you have posting privileges.

First of all, I say “our” day, but actually watching the expenses scandal unfold has been the first non party-political experience I’ve had of watching the news for some time.

I’m self-employed, surviving on family hand-outs and on the dwindling work the recession brings me. That gives me two insights. I know – oh, boy, do I know – what I can and can’t claim on expenses when I file my tax return. And when HMRC say “wholly, exclusively and necessarily in connection with the business”, they actually mean it. In fact – second insight – I now have infrequent enough work to make it worth applying for the dole, but I can’t get Jobseeker’s Allowance because self-employed contributions don’t count towards your entitlement, and because I live with my boyfriend, who does have an income.

Some of these MPs are claiming thousands for expenses on houses half-owned by their partners. And I’m not entitled to sixty quid a week to pay for food, bus fares and work clothes because, as the nice lady from the Chorlton processing centre put it, “The government would expect your partner to support you.” Lucky old me that I have such a partner, and a family that can afford to give me hand-outs. Were it not for them I’d be on the government’s fast-track programme to poverty.

And here they are, the political establishment that is supposed, as recompense for limiting my freedoms, to take care of me in bad times. Rubbing my nose in how little these considerable, life-changing sums of money mean to them. But it’s one thing to use Tory and Labour MPs as dartboards – the disappointment I’m going to feel tomorrow if any of our own people are seriously up to their necks is going to be quite another.

We can fairly reliably tot up those whom we know to be clean, and only just use up a whole hand – Norman Baker, Sarah Teather, Steve Webb and Jo Swinson. The first three have surfaced in the media – or in Steve’s case on his blog – in recent days to condemn what’s happening in no uncertain terms – they wouldn’t dare do that if they’d stepped even slightly out of line. And Swinson publishes her expenses in full. But for the rest? We’ve already heard about Lord Rennard, and Nick Clegg said today on the BBC that no party was going to come out of this smelling of roses, which indicates at least a few skeletons in the closet, perhaps front-bench skeletons.

Already, the trouser press has left me with a deep sense of foreboding (there’s a sentence you don’t get to write very often). £119.99 may not be much to an MP, and it’s not a life-changing sum of money – but for me, in the position I’m now in, it’s a month-changing sum of money. If the smooth-trousered MP in question would care to own up in the comments, they might wish to explain to me how this does not count as a “personal item”.

Furthermore, the owner of the garden swing seat with the dodgy rope might wish to explain how a garden swing seat does not count as a luxury item? Because, newsflash, that’s what it is. Saying it’s not a moat won’t (ha!) wash. Very few things are more luxurious than moats. That doesn’t make anything below a moat on the scale of western riches okay.

I leave the final word till we know the full details, but for the moment it seems to me that Clegg should simply turn over any out and out fraudsters to the police. What else is there to do? I know it’s been said so much in the last couple of days that it has become trite, but if I’d done what some of these people have done on my tax return, I’d be in court. I really would.

Lesser offenders, who have claimed in some way excessively but stayed within “the rules” should pay it back and arguably have the whip withdrawn. And everybody else who has claimed for anything other than basic maintenance should stop claiming for those. Now. In fact it’s a pity this step wasn’t taken quite some time ago.

I am dismayed, on both a personal and political level, by the extent to which the party has failed to move on this. Unlike the other two, Cowley Street has had nearly a week to prepare a decent and human response – which should certainly have included Clegg’s laying out in advance what he proposed to do about various degrees of offence, and probably the pre-release of all expenses as well. He made a perfectly decent point today on the Beeb when he pointed out how long the Lib Dems have been campaigning on the subject, but that point was let down by the rest of what he said. He sounded defensive and would neither admit to being worried about tomorrow’s coming revelations, nor assert that everyone was clean. I’m surprised the interviewers gave him such an easy ride.

I read Sarah Teather’s article earlier and thought it genuinely the best thing I’ve read on CiF in ages – but it’s a pity she didn’t put some of that shouting-at-the-tv energy into shouting at the communications department and the Leader’s Office. If even the decent MPs are powerless to change the culture around them, what chance do the rest of us stand?

UPDATE: And here comes the first wave. My disappointment is complete.

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  • Alix Mortimer 12th May '09 - 9:12pm

    I still don’t think we’re going to be *that* bad (even after my latest post). You really can’t get worse than a bloody moat. But I’m not sure the question of degree really matters :-/


    All but one frontbenchers. I guess I just expect them to pay it back- I think its shameful and we should do more. But we won’t. And we will probably let Rennard get away with his shamefull claims completly.

    Overall only one of our MP’s compares to the other parties, but the senior nature of those implicated in a minor way will I’m sure limit how we can take a lead on the issue.

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