I finished my time working for an MP more or less just as the first Parliamentary expenses scandal hit. Lucky for me: the MP I worked for at the time was marginally caught up in the rumpus – gracing the front page of the Daily Telegraph at one point – and went on to lose his seat in May 2010 by a mere few hundred votes. Impossible, of course, to ascribe this defeat to the circumstances of his second home but there was plenty of evidence in 2010 that the MP expenses issue was a potently negative electoral force.
If you could design one scenario that would make the general public despair of politicians during the greatest recession in seventy years, it would be the expenses issue of 2009. A duck house became the symbol for everything that was rotten and corrupt about the Houses of Parliament. Is it any coincidence that, since then, the greatest phenomenon in British politics has been the rise and rise of that party of doughty non-politicians, Ukip (this is their self-image at least; in truth, they have their own expenses issues but since these are Brussels-based they do not appear to matter so much)?
Ukip appeals to people on many levels but it’s the fact that its members can point to the other parties, who all have some Westminster representation, and proclaim “we’re not them” that perhaps helps the most. It would therefore be nice to think that the politicians based there – people whose job depends on some knowledge of public sentiment after all – would get this and make sure that they did not make the same mistakes again.
The attitude displayed by Maria Miller suggests perhaps this lesson hasn’t quite got through. This will matter to all parties; the phrase you’ll hear most often about politicians is that they’re “all the same” but it will matter to Mrs Miller’s colleagues in the Conservative Party the most. What on earth are Conservatives in marginal seats, the seats they desperately need to hold to have any hope of a majority in 2015, meant to tell their potential voters now?
UKIP have already done well with core Conservative voters by promising voters something for nothing and avoiding the infuriating need to compromise that comes with power. Now they can take advantage of a 34-second ‘apology’ for fiddling her expenses from a member of David Cameron’s Cabinet, as well as the support the Prime Minister has extended so readily and unequivocally. What a boon for UKIP and what a ludicrous, self-inflicted injury by the Conservatives.