Thursday, 9 December 2010

No Expenses Spared (Robert Winnett & Gordon Rayner)

No Expenses Spared
-Robert Winnett & Gordon Rayner

Why do we pay taxes again?

It is one of the ironies of Britain that despite frequent complaints about bad government from all sides of the political spectrum, the UK is actually reasonably well-governed. Certainly, there are exceptions and balls-ups aplenty, but by and large Britain is a far nicer place to live than…say, pretty much anywhere outside the First World. Just ask those nice protesters who throng through our major cities every time something happens outside Britain’s control – if they lived in Iran, or Zimbabwe, they would be dead.

And then the whole expenses scandal broke.

The elected leaders of the country – the MPs – receive a certain amount of money as a spending allowance. The idea was that poorer MPs would require assistance from public funds to handle their role. (Politics is an expensive business.) The whole problem was that the system suffered from incredibly limited oversight and it was almost tailor-made for abuse, and it was abused. The story presented by The Daily Telegraph was almost beyond belief. MPs were claiming expenses for almost anything you could imagine and defrauding the taxpayer of millions of pounds.

No Expenses Spared starts with a nod to Labour’s botched Freedom of Information Act – watered down to make it surprisingly hard to use – and the handful of campaigners who tried to learn the innermost secrets of MPs finances. Their successes were comparatively limited until a whistleblower – his name remains unknown – sent the Telegraph a CD containing the innermost details of expenses, implicating almost all of the Honourable Members, including Gordon Brown. The agonies the newspaper went through as it checked the data, worried constantly about legal repression and injunctions that might have buried the story, are depicted before the newspaper finally ran with the story. It was a bombshell.

Over the next few weeks and months, the British population was treated to discovery after discovery, from the criminal to the absurd. (One MP claimed a phantom mortgage, another claimed for a duck house and a third claimed for female sanitary supplies.) It may have started with Labour, yet all of the major parties were rapidly implicated. The Tories may have been the party of the wealthy, yet they had many MPs just as obnoxious as Labour MPs. The only party that seemed to be spared was the BNP!

There are villains aplenty in this book, starting with the Speaker, who was forced to resign, the Prime Minister and hundreds of MPs who seemed to have lost all touch with reality. There were a handful of MPs who were ‘saints’ with surprisingly clean hands. Gordon Brown had lost control so badly that his leadership was seriously challenged and had a prospective candidate come forward, he might have been voted out of the Labour party. His Cabinet seemed to be in a state of permanent disintegration ever since the scandal broke. MPs were walking around shell-shocked, wondering who would be the next to incur the public’s anger.

[The former Speaker was then shamefully granted a peerage and allowed to take a seat in the House of Lords.]

The major politician who came out of it best was unquestionably David Cameron. He reacted with speed, decisiveness and ruthlessness, coming down hard on any Tory MPs who were caught red-handed. (Cameron’s claims made boring reading.) Tory MPs would face a ‘Star Chamber’ in addition to the normal tests and any who refused would be expelled from the Party. It was, as some commenters remarked, the moment when Cameron first showed that he had PM potential. A number of Tory MPs were caught and decided that they would not stand for re-election, or left at once.

The book reads, at times, like a fantasy novel. The claims are just unbelievable. Shahid Malik, the UK's first Muslim to be a Government Minister, accused the newspaper of being racist, in printing a picture of him beside an image of a man who looked (just slightly) like Bin Laden. The man was actually a rather questionable businessman who was implicitly involved in Malik’s activities and Malik’s attempts at legal action went nowhere. Malik, while one of the villains of the piece, was luckier than most. He was allowed to rejoin the government after being whitewashed (hah) and cleared by a second inquiry into his conduct.

And yet he was far from the worst. What about the wealthy-as-Midas Tory who ordered a Duck House? The MPs who kept altering their second homes to claim expenses for needless repairs? The MPs who allowed their relatives to work in their offices, or live in their homes without rent, or…the list goes on and on. It’s sickening.

I tend to dislike books published immediately after – or even during – an event. They tend to lack the perspective of more balanced works, yet No Expenses Spared is surprisingly well-balanced and focused. The authors are clearly more at home in the newsroom than writing factual manuscripts, but the book – after a slightly clumsy start – gets going with a roar. It is, and remains, a very through review of the whole affair – at least until the book was published!

I would advise every Briton, of every political stripe, to read this book before the next election in 2010. Not only is it good reading, but it is of vital political importance to the British political landscape. The rot at the core of the House of Commons threatens the very heart of British democracy. No major Party escaped the taint.

Read it and pray.

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