Look on the bright side: for once MPs won’t be trudging round the doorsteps in the countdown to the June elections.
Short of canvassing under a large banner inscribed ‘plague, plague’ it is difficult to see how any candidate would welcome the ministrations of the local MP, irrespective of whether the second homes allowance has been used to pay for a David Hicks interior or to purchase a chipped vase at the charity bring-and-buy stall.
A few weeks ago Eric Pickles, Tory party chairman, was ordering his MPs into battle like Marshal Zhukov planning the final assault on Berlin: now it would not surprise me if the party made a mass booking to send MPs on an extended trekking experience in the remoter parts of Siberia.
Unfair? Certainly, in the sense that the innocent and the offending are lumped together in the public mind. But candidates are reporting that the issue of parliamentary allowances has descended over the election campaign like the Black Death.
David Cameron was first off the mark. He said the party could not tell the country it faced blood, sweat and tears — the new age of thrift — under a Tory government, if it did not put its house in order with pretty brutal speed. He has spent his leadership remoulding the party so that it looks as if it reflects modern Britain: the last thing he wants are images which recall taunts that deep down the ‘same old Tories’ are living in a privileged world of their own.
The spectacular show trials of shadow cabinet members were designed to show bareknuckled leadership — and to leave Gordon Brown stumbling in his wake. All Labour had to offer on the day was the somewhat pathetic sight of Hazel Blears waving her capital gains tax cheque in front of the cameras like a pocket-sized Neville Chamberlain declaring fiscal peace over her property.
Cameron is even setting up a tribunal chaired by chief whip Patrick McLoughlin to adjudicate on claims. I don’t know whether he has noticed it, but when he commutes to the chamber he passes a plaque to indicate the spot of the Court of Star Chamber, finally abolished in the aristocratic putsch against Charles I in 1641 — a long enough career but hopefully not a precedent for the whips.
Stand by for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Mainstream parties agonise that the main beneficiaries of the grotesque cabaret played out in Westminster will be the minority, sectarian parties.
The one they really fear is the British National Party (BNP). UKIP is hardly in a position of moral superiority given the misadventures of some members with expenses and welfare claims and Cameron is, in any case, trying to take the Euro-sceptic trick by renewing his assault on the Lisbon Treaty.
As for the BNP, its core message about immigration, foreign workers and ‘British’ jobs takes its adrenalin from the recession and unemployment, however tempting the ‘snouts in the trough’ diversion. Ironically, on the same day as the latest instalment of the MPs’ allowances saga the figures for unemployment showed a rise of 244,000 over the past three months — providing real feedstock for the BNP campaign, which somehow manages to be raucous and furtive at the same time.
Should the main parties go after the BNP or pretend it is not there? I’m for the blitz approach.
Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures. How long before someone has the obvious brainwave — call in Joanna Lumley.
David Curry is Conservative MP for Skipton & Ripon