A few weeks ago, when the expenses row was simmering not boiling, David Cameron suggested to Gordon Brown that he and Nick Clegg (the leader of the Liberal Democrats) get together and try to work out a new system.
Of course there may have been politics in there. He is the Leader of the Opposition after all. But in hindsight, it might have been a good move. Had they been able to agree upon a series of principles to govern MPs’ renumeration and expenses, then left the rest to detailed negotiation and consideration by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, politics might have had a route map to a better place than where it is this morning.
Eventually, there will have to be a move to pay MPs higher salaries, provide truly professional and properly audited staffing of their offices, and deal with some of the expenses nonsenses that are currently drowning out other political debate.
So there may have been some big bullets to bite had the Prime Minister, Cameron and Clegg got together. But far better than death by 1.5 million splinters, in the form of a drip-drip release of expenses claims stretching back four years.
I continue to believe that the vast bulk of MPs go into politics for the right reasons, because they have strong views and values and know that it is through democratic politics that national life is led, and much change delivered. Equally, I do not believe they go into politics to get rich.
That being said, a brief skim around the Daily Telegraph website this morning is certainly challenging reading for someone who chooses in the main to defend politics and politicians. I don’t get shocked by much, but I was genuinely surprised by some of the things MPs are entitled to do and claim for. The question in MPs’ minds as they submit expenses should not be ‘can I get away with this?’ Nor even ‘how will it it look?’ Nor even ‘is it within the rules?’ But is it right? Many expenses claims are justified. Many are not.
Of course the Telegraph is a right-wing paper and Labour is the party of government so it is inevitable they will focus as much as possible on those claims which concern Labour MPs, especially ministers. By the time the focus shifts to MPs from other parties, the noise may have abated a little, so in so far as muck sticks, it will stick mainly to Labour. There will be next to no focus on those who appear to have been frugal and sage, though I did hear Hilary Benn and Alan Johnson cited somewhere as being on the side of the angels.
Many legislators in many countries will look in on this and wonder what the fuss is about. You do not have to travel too far round Europe to find serious corruption that makes this look trifling. Equally we should be wary of taking too seriously the frothing fulminations of Fleet Street’s finest, a piece of alliteration as over the top as it was accidental.
I remember getting a call from a political editor saying ‘can you please stop saying in interviews you never go out for lunch with journalists?’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because you’re on my expenses every week.’ And I don’t doubt it has changed a lot since my days at the Mirror, but the expenses culture then was a wonder to behold.
None of this excuses some of the excesses which have been exposed. I agree with Charles Clarke that it is probably sensible to find a way of getting all the expenses out ahead of the planned July 1 release date, rather than have the Telegraph control the agenda.
Eventually the debate has to get wrestled back to the serious and difficult policy challenges facing government and opposition alike. Surely all three party leaders would agree on that. Perhaps there is still time for a meeting to work out how best they might do that.