Why MPs are still paying the price for decade-old expenses scandal – Matthew Flinders

TEN years ago the MPs’ expenses scandal erupted and shook the British political system to its foundations.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.

At the time several commentators questioned whether Parliamentary democracy as we knew it would survive the drip-by-drip day-by-day revelations that the The Telegraph fed an increasingly angry British public.

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Unlike other scandals, this did not involve a rogue politician or a couple of scoundrels on the make. This was systemic in nature and tarred just about every MP with the same brush and, as a result, a large number lost their careers and some even lost their freedom and ended up in prison.

It is 10 years since the MPs' expenses scandal erupted.

The real victim, as surveys revealed at the time, was public confidence and faith in politics: Parliament really was on its knees.

The story of the MPs’ expenses scandal has been told a million times. From the duck house to the moat cleaning and from flipping houses to phantom mortgages, it has become the stuff of political legend and caricature.

But the arguably more interesting and far less-told story revolves around the classic ‘what happened next?’ question.

In this regard the conventional answer would be seem to be ‘very little’. The MPs expenses scandal was, from this perspective, little more than yet another example of both the self-interested nature of the political class – and the inability of the system – to acknowledge the need to reform.

This is the story, for example, told by William Lewis, who as Editor-in-Chief of The Telegraph, scooped arguably the biggest political story of recent decades (until Brexit).

In The New Statesman earlier this month, he wrote: “The chance to make radical reforms to our political institutions and how they operate was, however, glaringly (and deliberately) overlooked. The legacy of that missed opportunity is now clear to see.”

And yet there is a different story to be told.

This is the story of the reforms that did follow in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal and – critically – why they seem to have failed to register when it comes to rebuilding public confidence or trust in politics.

Take, for example, the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the end of Parliamentary self-regulation in relation to MPs pay and expenses.

Take, for example, the election of John Bercow as the post-scandal Speaker charged with somehow lifting Parliament off its knees. There is little doubt that John Bercow is both an eccentric character and Marmite figure in the sense that you either love him or hate him, but it is very hard to deny that he has been a reforming Speaker.

You only have to look at the increase in Urgent Questions and the way he has placed public engagement at the core of his tenure to see how much has changed. Another example takes us to the select committee corridor and the impact of what have become known as ‘the Wright reforms’.

Tony Wright is a very clever chap. He can spot a window of opportunity from a hundred parliamentary yards and the Labour MP was not going to let a good crisis to waste.

As the MPs’ expenses scandal sent the political equivalent of shrapnel ricocheting around No 10 and with an election looming, he penned a letter to Gordon Brown suggesting that the creation of a new committee to consider sweeping reforms to the select committee system might play some important role in rebuilding public confidence in British politics.

The rest, as they say is history, and the election of select committee chairs – arguably the key feature of the Wright reforms – has served to shift the balance of power between the executive and legislature.

The legacy of the MPs’ expenses scandal is therefore more complex and multi-layered than many observers seem able to willing to recognise.

Reform did happen.

But it’s also true that radical reform of the type William Lewis claims to hanker after did not occur.

“It was a very British revolution – it has been very British and very peaceful,” wrote former Independent MP Martin Bell in 2010. “[But] nonetheless profound. Its outcomes will permanently change the nature of our politics and especially that of the House of Commons.”

One element of that change has been the post-2010 generation of MPs – like Anna Soubry, Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Rachel Reeves, Nicky Morgan, Chuka Umunna and Sarah Woolaston – who have arguably adopted a far more open, honest and independent-minded approach to Parliamentary life (often through the independence afforded as the elected chair of a select committee).

And yet, despite the reforms, Parliament still appears to be on its knees – possibly even lying prone or locked into some form of institutional brace position.

The recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement provides a genuinely depressing account of contemporary public attitudes. ‘Incoming!’ appears to have been the main shout that echoed through the corridors at Westminster a decade ago… and that same refrain still appears to be reverberating in the corridors today, just with a distinctive Brexit inflection.

The fact that MPs still appear to operate within the shadow of the MPs expenses scandal is arguably not that surprising given the anti-political sentiment that appears to define the modern age.

And yet, looking back and with the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that the real legacy of the scandal – the deeper failing – was that it did not cultivate a serious and balanced debate about the price and value of democracy… and therefore about what we want our MPs to do, who we want to do it, how we want them to do it – and why doing politics on the cheap is probably not a good idea.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also President of the Political Studies Association.