Feature: Downgrading the expenses storm

Despite the thousands of column inches and the hours of broadcast coverage, the expenses scandal’s impact on grassroots politics remains questionable.

By Alex Stevenson

Eight months have passed since the Telegraph’s revelations about abuses of the allowances system for MPs first rocked Westminster’s foundations.

They’ve been marked by strenuous efforts from the party leaders to draw a line under the scandal. These have met with a spectacular lack of success.

The future remains uncertain. Sir Christopher Kelly’s root-and-branch review was supposed to have been accepted in full. But the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority’s determination to consult means the final settlement of a new expenses regime remains undecided – and up for debate.

The past, incredibly, also remains unresolved. Auditor Sir Thomas Legg’s repayment demands for excessive claims should have been the last word on the matter. But the retired judge who overrode some of his conclusions called the Legg judgements “damaging, unfair and wrong”.

And then there’s the criminal charges being pressed against three MPs and one peer, announced yesterday, to contend with. Clearly, this is not a story which is going away.

Retrospective damage

Many of the councillors at a local government conference in north London were in agreement that the expenses scandal’s biggest impact has already passed.

“Our elections were in June, just at the height of it,” Laura Mayes of Tory-dominated Wiltshire county council remembers.

Of Devizes’ four seats on the council, she was the only Tory to meet with success. “The other three went to independents so it did have an effect, I think.”

Yash Gupta, a Labour councillor in Thurrock, spoke for many as he wondered whether his MP’s retirement may have in part been influenced by the expenses fallout. Andrew Mackinlay publicly claimed his exit from the Commons came because he felt “disillusioned with parliament” and the dominance of the party whips. But was that the only reason?

“It is one of the reasons that Andrew went,” Mr Gupta says. “Because he was quite a popular MP and I think had he been there perhaps he would have been easily elected.”

Even if Mr Mackinlay’s retirement really was because he was standing down in protest at the rule of the whips, the issues his case raises provides us with a clue to the reason the expenses scandal is going to have a limited impact on the coming general election.

For the enormous list of MPs who have decided to call it a day by not standing down again is proof enough that much of the blood has already been drawn. Most of those who have been really embarrassed are doing the honourable thing – and withdrawing gracefully without a fight.

It’s certainly why Ms Mayes believes expenses won’t have the same wipeout effect come polling day.

“We’ve got new candidates in all three Wiltshire seats, so I think they can put a line under any touch of scandal from the previous regime,” she explains.

“Even though they’re Tory incumbents, they’re new.”

Not all are quite so dismissive, it should be noted. Jim Clinkscales, a member of the Liberal Democrat opposition on Southend-on-Sea’s borough council, was disappointed at the limited effect it had on the town’s two Tory MPs, David Amess and James Duddridge.

“We were hoping it would have had more impact than it has. The jury’s still out. I think both our Conservative MPs have admitted up to expenditure, shall we call it? It will obviously be up to the electorate. And it’ll probably be reflected in our leaflet.”

A symptom or a cause?

Councillor Victor Thompson, one of the handful of independents on the Labour-dominated South Tyneside metropolitan borough council, offers a gloomy outlook.

His recent doorstepping for an upcoming by-election in a Labour ward has given him a distinct flavour of the general mood. “They don’t want to know.”

It doesn’t get much better. “The general consensus is that politicians are not really the flavour of the month. I suppose it’s to be expected, to a degree. They still don’t get the message out, MPs, do they?”

Mr Clinkscales, our Lib Dem in Southend-on-Sea, went even further. He warns that, as politics is not the public’s “favourite subject”, they would rather watch soap operas. He says jokingly: “If the election day is on an EastEnders day, the turnout will be affected.” But the underlying tone is disturbing. “The mood on the doorstep is fed up.”

The country is feeling under the weather, it seems. Is that because the expenses scandal has put them off discredited Westminster politics, or because of a wider – and arguably more troubling – disengagement?

This unanswered conundrum is summed up by the answer given by Hillary Stephenson, another Lib Dem from South Lakeland district council. She downplays the effects of the expenses scandal, even though some are directly referring to it on the doorstep.

“That’s generally people who don’t want to talk about the fact they’re non-voters,” she says. “Most people are pretty sensible, actually.”

This is only the beginning, of course. Sue Hatton of Mid-Sussex district council is happy to admit that “everybody’s cheesed off”, but attributes this to disillusionment with the state of the two main parties. “Everybody wants a change but I think they’re worried about what that change might bring,” she says. I ask her which party she’s from. Unsurprisingly, she’s a Lib Dem.

This tendency to revert to party politics might be interpreted by a cynical psychoanalyst as a desperate desire to get away from the issue at hand. One Labour councillor for Tower Hamlets insisted that “people are talking very positively” in his neck of the woods; a Conservative on Suffolk county council said people were “relatively understanding of the difficult situation the country is in”.

Their focus, we must conclude, is on the coming election battle. It’s less clear where the public’s attention lies.

So how do we rate the expense storm? These reports from the frontline of politics show that, once a hurricane of the first degree, the scandal can now be downgraded. Shame the ‘expenses tropical cyclone’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, isn’t it?