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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Perhaps it would be better if all MPs were sponsored...They will sit in the 'Cornhill Insurance Parliament' and swig on Lucozade by Mark Steel

Mark Steel

First published in The Independent on 20th May 2009

Can there ever have been a time when so many people were so furious? You can be walking your kids to school and the lollipop lady will say "There you go, dear, now always remember to look both ways before crossing. Unless you're an MP, in which case you DESERVE to get splattered into mush by a bloody great lorry, the thieving bastards. Have a lovely day at school, dear."

So the Speaker resigning is hardly likely to change that. News reporters get excited, gasping that this is the most dramatic event since the Battle of Hastings – but most people didn't even know who Michael Martin was. I doubt whether many people have said: "First it was Jade, then Peter and Jordan and now it's the Speaker of the Commons – well, they SAY these things come in threes."

What they are aware of is the almost admirable arrogance of the MPs who've been caught. Douglas Hogg, for example, seems utterly bemused as to why anyone would object to his expenses claim for cleaning his moat. He looks as if he's about to splutter: "Because of these shenanigens, I've had to lay off three of my archers – are you SATISFIED?"

And they make the most wonderful excuses, such as: "This situation is merely down to a mistake. I claimed for the mortgage payments on my second home because I simply forgot that I already own another house half a mile away. I'm a busy man and in these circumstances the odd bungalow easily slips the mind." Or: "Although it's true that I've been receiving payments for the last five years for a mortgage that was paid off in 1978, this was in no way due to deceit on my part, as throughout this time I've been unaware of who I am."

The elaborate nature of some of these claims are inspired. You expect the next one to go: "The MP claimed £7,000 for a carpet, and then another £9,000 for the same carpet, saying he'd employed it for nine months as his personal secretary."

But in some ways the ones who say sorry are worse. What do they mean – sorry? So they've been claiming this money for years, then suddenly they become sorry on the same day their fiddle's reported in the newspaper, well what a coincidence.

Perhaps this is a result of a strain of dyslexia, in which the sufferer mixes up the word "sorry" with the word "caught". What they mean to say is: "I'm giving back some of the money because I feel truly, truly caught."

Maybe this will be the trend, and if a burglar's caught climbing out of a window with a television, he'll say: "Doesn't this show how we have to reform this dreadful system. Look what it's made me do."

But in one sense you can see the source of the MPs' frustration. The Tories, and for the last 15 years Labour, have made it their philosophy that acquiring wealth is not only beneficial for the individuals who acquire it, it's the force that keeps society going.

They encouraged the city bonuses, congratulated the super-rich on their extravagances, and befriended characters who moved billions offshore to avoid paying tax. We would all benefit, so the politicians argued, from this gluttony.

For New Labour especially, it became almost a matter of principle to be seen enjoying wealth, as it made a statement they were no longer old-fashioned class warriors from the 1970s. And for politicians of either party, the sums emerging from their expenses claims must seem tiny. When you've helped create an environment in which Philip Green can shift over a billion pounds to Monaco to avoid tax, a couple of grand for a few chairs must seem like fiddling a bus fare.

So their solutions to the expenses system will probably be that MPs should be sponsored, so they'll sit in the "Cornhill Insurance Parliament" and promise that, during every speech, they stop to take a swig of Lucozade, then say: "Following the Minister's report on worsening relations between this country and the government of Burma, is it not the case that the Wickes bathrooms springtime sale offers prices that are crazy, crazy, crazy.

"We'd ALL wish we were under house arrest if it meant spending more time in a Wickes bath. So come on Mr Speaker, don't just say order order, say order order a Wickes bathroom today."

But the most disturbing lesson that can be taken from all this, is things must have got pretty rotten when to sort out your code of ethics you depend on the Daily bloody Telegraph.

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