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Downing Street countdown

Brown was to be the meltdown’s saviour. The expenses scandal changed all that

Written by Meghnad Desai |
June 5, 2009 1:29:13 am

Wednesday,June 3 was the day the clock started ticking for Gordon Brown. He had 365 days left before he would be compelled to call an election. The five years of the third Labour government would then be over. But Gordon Brown may not last that long. Indeed he may not be there as prime minister when this article appears on your doorstep. Life in British politics has moved in the very fast,indeed almost Formula One speed lane.

Just two months ago,Brown was hosting the G-20 meeting in London,thinking that he was managing the global recovery. The global recession has been good for Brown. He was down in the dumps during much of 2008 and about to face a leadership challenge from David Miliband in September. Then Lehman Brothers went bust. Brown could display his economic ability. His decision to recapitalise British banks made him a hero. From mid-September to early April,Brown was on the up and Labour’s share in the opinion polls held up in the high 20s,only 10 points behind the Tories.

Nothing has gone right for Brown since the G-20. It all started with a very small matter. Jacqui Smith,the home secretary,was found to have claimed among her allowable expenses as an MP a subscription to a TV channel which showed pornographic films. Her husband who works as her office manager from her home in the constituency confessed to be watching porn films and apologised. But it got worse when it came out that Jacqui Smith was claiming her constituency home as her second home. In London,she lived in a spare room at her sister’s house and put it down as her first home. MPs get a larger allowance for their second homes on the ground that they need one if they live away from London. She had put the more expensive house as her second home getting around £20,000 for mortgage payments and a smaller amount for her first home.

She was not the only one found cheating the taxpayer whose money finances parliaments. There had been an application under the Freedom of Information Act for details of MPs’ expenses. Speaker Michael Martin tried to fight the request and took it to a court and lost the case. That was bad enough. Parliament said it would release the details in July 2009 — that is,after MPs had gone into recess. That was the second offence for a government which has taken to snooping on any and all activities of citizens on the excuse of countering terrorism. It was hiding its own secrets.

Then in a fine piece of old fashioned journalism The Daily Telegraph obtained a disc with all the expenses details. They paid for the stolen disc,but the revelations were so dramatic that no one has yet taken the newspaper to court. The disc showed that MPs were determined to claim as much as the rules would allow. MPs are allowed “reasonable” expenses for carrying out their work. They took “reasonable” to mean the maximum amount.

No one’s grocery list looks good in broad daylight. Claiming 89p for a bath plug or £1.25 for a bar of chocolate did not show good sense on the part of the claimants. But there were also large sums — for an artificial duck house in the middle of a lake for the MP’s ducks threatened by foxes,a moat around the MP’s castle which needed repair,three high definition TVs and five beds for a three bedroom flat and the final straw was a claim for £15,000 for a servant’s quarter by a Tory grandee. Small as well as large claims insulted people’s common sense. Being within the rules was no excuse. The voters were offended that the rules were devised by the MPs themselves and they wished to be judge and jury.

The worst was the “flipping”. MPs can claim for their second home if their constituency is away from London. Claims can be larger for second homes than for first homes,MPs switched the designation of their houses from one to the other,depending on where the mortgage was larger. When one house was paid for,the other one became the second home. Hazel Blears,a cabinet minister,flipped thrice,sold a house and pocketed the capital gains,illegally. Alistair Darling,chancellor of the exchequer,who had an official residence,went on to claim for his second London home which he had rented out.

The British people respect their parliamentary system but not the parliamentarians. The anger of the people is palpable. Normally,British politics is remarkably free of corruption. There are no ATM ministries. It is because the public is unforgiving of even small bits of cheating that politics stays clean. All the claims were allowable though the flipping was somewhat ingenuous.

Gordon Brown failed to see the full extent of the damage. He did not see that his party and his government were being blamed. Michael Martin,the speaker,a Labour MP and a Scotsman like the prime minister,had to resign. Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears have resigned,four MPs have been suspended from re-running by the Labour party and many more are thinking of retiring. So while all parties are guilty,it is Labour which is down in the low 20s in the opinion polls and 20 points behind the Tories. It is even possible that at the next election,Labour may trail behind the Tories and the LibDems in third place.

No wonder,there are calls for Gordon Brown to step down and allow another leader to emerge,Alan Johnson,the health secretary,being the current favourite. But Brown refuses to go. Labour faces a historic defeat. Whether he goes or stays,his career is going down the plug hole,because of,not despite,the 89p plug.

The writer,a member of the British House of Lords,has been associated with the Labour party for decades

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