Alex Hilton: MPs cannot kill expenses story

The defining event of this political year, this Parliament, has been the expenses scandal. Yet regardless of MPs' best efforts, the story still runs.

Alex Hilton

We now hear that four politicians are heading for criminal prosecution. The Commons has set up a 'committee' to discuss how to hold the executive to account better. Conservative leader David Cameron has derided the Government for the absence of expenses-related proposals in the Queen's Speech.

There is a simple reason why Parliament can't kill this story. It is because no-one is in charge. There is no strategy. MPs are commenting without a script, or even worse, with conflicting scripts. Normally that would be healthy, but this isn't about policy, it's about integrity, and the failure to provide the public with clarity is feeding this scandal.

There are many facets to this story and each one provides more confusion. For example, there is a broad range of opinion that MPs get paid too much or too little. But MPs have wormed their way into the position where, to the public, it looks as though they are demanding a pay rise in return for not being corrupt. What they need is for the parties and the Speaker to agree a single line, something along the lines of, 'MPs might not be paid appropriately but, nevertheless, we agree that there will be an absolute pay freeze, not even an inflation rise, for the whole of the next Parliament'.

With a clear position like that, any dissenting parliamentarians would be instantly marginalised rather than presented as the mainstream body of MPs' opinion. And it may be that most MPs would seethe at the idea of a pay freeze, but they are aware that this is a scandal of their own making and that more is at stake than a wad of cash.

Every aspect of the expenses scandal could be dealt with in this way if the party leaders and the Speaker co-ordinated their positions. But the rivalries are too entrenched for them to let go. This scandal will run until polling day.

- Alex Hilton is a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of political blogs Labourhome and Recess Monkey.

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