Painful fight to restore image tarnished by MPs' expenses row

Posted in Europe | 12-May-09 | Author: Patrick Wintour| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Britain´s Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Gordon Brown will chair a political meeting of his battered cabinet in Downing Street, staring at some of the most miserable opinion polls in Labour's history. Headlines showing Conservative backbenchers have been every bit as venal over their expenses as the most morally dubious Labour cabinet members have only gone some way to lift the gloom.

A Times/Populus poll showed Labour at a dismal 26%, and will be seen as the voters' verdict on Labour greed. This kind of result will send Labour close to third place in the popular vote in the European election on 4 June and trigger another round of backbench demands for the prime minister to stand down.

Brown will respond with a brutal ministerial reshuffle in which he will use his patronage to punish those who he feels played the system for personal gain. The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the communities secretary, Hazel Blears, know they are first in line for summary execution.

The political cabinet had been intending to look at the European election strategy, with some cabinet members intending to propose that the government needed to do more to address public concern at the scale of the ballooning public deficit.

Alongside calls for departmental restraint, big programmes such as Trident nuclear missiles, quangos, public sector pensions and defence spending had to be put up for discussion. But now in the current political fever over expenses such a discussion would seem deeply arcane.

Many Labour strategists recognise that, as the governing party, Labour was always going to take the brunt of public venom. The law of diminishing disgust also applies. The public will remember Labour greed more than the Tories' greed partly because the Daily Telegraph highlighted Labour first.

So in Brown's closest circle, as MPs returned from a horrible weekend being sneered at by their constituents, there is something little short of despair over the way in which the expenses story has unfolded. "We are hated, despised and frowned upon as a bunch of cheats. It is awful," said one of the Brown team.

The prime minister tried to take the first step to drawing a preliminary line over the mess yesterday by offering an unreserved apology on behalf of the political classes. But even this this apology, following his apology over the Damian McBride emails, looked more half-hearted and muffled than the one offered by David Cameron a day earlier.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the apology would ring hollow with voters if it did not lead to any specific reforms.

Labour MPs fear that they will not get a hearing on any political issue until the expenses issue is cleared up, so making it essential that something is agreed very quickly. Yet as the last two years have shown, neither the Speaker, Michael Martin, the Commons authorities, nor the Labour leadership have been determined enough to forge a consensus over reform.

All that MPs can do is press for a rapid publication of their expenses forms this week to end the drip, drip of revelations from the Telegraph's computer disc.

The initiative instead rests outside the control of the political parties and with Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the committee on standards in public life. Kelly feels he was the victim of a Brown bounce and is not eager to help out the political parties. "I am pretty furious ... by the sheer scale of what's been happening," he told the BBC .

Asked if he would produce recommendations before MPs start their summer break on 21 July, he said he would do nothing to ease embarrassment for politicians, adding that his committee was determined to do its job properly.