Laws on the ropes?

David is… Mr Integrity. Integrity is the thing that drives him. I believe that he may have been caught, in a way, in the imprecise nature of the word ‘partnership’. The word is used in the House of Commons regulations… I think in good faith he concluded that it did not apply to him.
(Lord Ashdown, David Laws’ predecessor as Yeovil MP)

I have some personal sympathy for David Laws. What a month it has been. He was still campaigning for re-election at the beginning of the month. He didn’t expect then to help negotiate the first coalition government for 65 years. He didn’t expect to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He didn’t expect some of his closest friends and family to learn he was gay.

Now the Daily Telegraph suggests he broke parliamentary rules by claiming second home expenses to rent a room from his partner, James Lundie. Mr Laws’ defence is that Mr Lundie was not a ‘partner’ under the expenses rules.

He did not want his relationship revealed. He and Mr Lundie “are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.”

How frustrating these revelations must be for him. But as the expenses saga unfolded last year, surely every MP must have considered how their own circumstances might have appeared under close scrutiny. It was clear they would be judged by their adherence to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules.

Mr Laws says he will pay back £40,000 and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.  Surely it would have been prudent to refer himself last year? Surely that must have occurred to him last year? It may not have prevented the Telegraph uncovering the story, but it might have taken some of the steam out of it.

Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg have a rather awkward situation to deal with. In theory it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide Mr Laws’ fate. But perhaps he will delegate the problem to his deputy. David Laws is a Lib Dem; he is Mr Clegg’s problem.

If he goes, would he have to be replaced by a Lib Dem? Or could he be replaced from either coalition party? It is an important question for the coalition. I suspect that resignations such as this (if it occurs) may often need to be followed by a minor reshuffle.

The pressure on Mr Laws will be all the greater for his ministerial responsibility. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury it is his job to wield the axe on public spending. His expenses claims may detract from his moral authority in one of the most crucial jobs in government.

Update: David Laws has resigned from the Cabinet. He is replaced by the Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, perceived as a more awkward fit than Mr Laws. As the Times describes it: “Coalition wobbles in bid to keep its balance.”

My prediction…

…published ahead of the exit polls.

The turnout will be high, about 72%. That’s higher than 2005 (61.3%), but lower than 1992 (77.7%). The warm weather will have helped, but apathy pins many people to their sofas.

The Conservatives will win 323 seats. The Ulster Unionists will win two seats. They are already in a formal coalition, so that grants David Cameron the support of 325 MPs, exactly half of the total. Truly a ‘balanced parliament’.

Labour will win 222 seats and the Liberal Democracts will win 74.

Sinn Fein will win five constituencies, but they do not take their seats. The Speaker of the House is John Bercow and he will retain his Buckingham seat by a small margin. For his main opponent, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, it will be the second blow in 24 hours. Mr Speaker does not vote. In effect, this enables Mr Cameron to govern with a practical majority of six.

But it is always the nominal overall majority that is quoted, and so my prediction is zero. John Major won a majority of 21 in 1992 which dwindled to precisely zero by the end of his term. He found it hard to govern throughout.

If David Cameron wins outright, it will be by a tiny margin. Frequently, he will need to count on the support of every one of his MPs, and maybe others. It will be tough.

For whatever government emerges over the next few days, tough years lie ahead.

A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

The Thieves of Westminster

Sometimes my wife and I read chunks of the newspaper out to each other as we find interesting titbits. Yesterday I bought the Sunday Telegraph and marvelled at the number of pages devoted to the expenses of our elected representatives. And that was after the Telegraph had devoted Friday and Saturday to the issue too. It’s back in the paper yet again today! It’s all on this link if you want to read all about it.

As I read through the allegations, I found myself reading out almost every other paragraph to Vanessa, such was my fascination with the moral dungeon some MPs have stooped into.

I don’t object to MPs receiving a decent salary, but I think some of them fail to recognise that £64,766 is a pretty reasonable level of remuneration.

We shouldn’t ask them to work for peanuts, and indeed we don’t. Their salary is plenty enough for elected representatives working in public service. It’s not like the market would create a higher salary. Hundreds of people are eager to become an MP, for every one who makes it into office. Indeed, if MPs’ salaries were defined by supply and demand, they’d probably work for free. But in that scenario only the rich could afford to represent us and avoid penury.

It is true that many (though perhaps not all) MPs could earn more outside parliament. Indeed, some of them do earn more in their part-time jobs. But aside from their moonlighting, they have chosen a noble path and should swap their personal financial ambition for higher ideals.

£65k is only their base salary. Aside from their generous expenses, there are a range of ways MPs can earn more:

  • If their constituency is in London, they get London weighting.
  • The Prime Minister, his secretaries of state, their ministers and their parliamentary under secretaries all get a salary supplement.
  • The Leader of the Opposition, his whips, the Speaker, his deputies and Select Committee chairmen also receive a supplement.

So I really don’t buy the argument that expenses are in some way a substitute for a decent salary. The salary is fine, and as the Speaker has argued, MPs should not just “work to the rules”, but consider “the spirit of what is right”. In the meantime, it’s clear that many MPs’ application of the rules shows so little regard for the spirit of them that one wonders whether the needle in their collective moral compass has been installed back-to-front.

Under the circumstances, it would seem wise to ignore the moral compass and just get the rules right. Michael Martin is finding himself isolated from voters and even most MPs in his witch-hunt of the leaker, but he accepts that “serious change” is needed. The Committee for Standards in Public Life is working on this, but it won’t be bounced into rushing the process. As the chairman says, the “issues are not simple”. What kind of issues are they? What should they be considering? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Expenses should be accurate, not generous.
  • Money should be paid to reimburse expenses actually incurred in the course of an MP’s work.
  • No individual needs to spend £400 per month for groceries in their ‘second’ home. What are they eating? Perhaps caviar omelettes for breakfast and organic truffles spiced with saffron for dinner. This needs considerable revision!
  • An MP could rent a decent one-bedroom flat in central London for £1,200 per month. If something grander is desired, so be it, but £1,200 towards rent, mortgage interest or hotel rooms is plenty, in London or elsewhere.
  • Repairs and maintenance are a personal matter which the Commons authorities should not interfere with. But if an MP needs to extend their mortgage to pay for repairs, the authorities could cover the interest payments provided they do not exceed £1,200pm.
  • An MP should be asked to designate their ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ homes at the beginning of a parliamentary term. Any desire to change this should be considered by an independent panel. The request and decision should be a matter of public record.
  • A fixed grant at the begining of an MP’s tenure could be paid to cover special expenses, such as furniture. This could be equal to a month’s salary (£5,397). It would be taxable, but any actual expenses the MP incurs would be tax deductable with HMRC. NB: MPs already receive a 3-month severance payment when they retire (or are turfed out) as an MP.
  • What MPs tell the Commons authorities about their living arrangements should be consistent with what they tell HMRC. It should also be consistent with reality!
  • All expenses should be receipted. If an MP considers it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.

The information revealed in recent days is – in my view – a credit to the Telegraph. It wasn’t cheap, perhaps £100k, but it was probably a bargain given how much the paper has milked it. But the other cost lies within the risk of libel action, which must be considerable. Was it wrong to publish? I think not, given the widespread concern about so many MPs. Some of them have difficult questions to answer, and the truth will hurt them. But others have innocent reasons linked to their curious expenses.

Corrupt to the core?
Corrupt to the core?

I don’t doubt for a moment the Prime Minister’s probity in connection with the £6k cleaning bill paid to his brother. But many voters will judge him harshly for it. If he is innocent, then the taxpayers’ frustration is unfair. But the situation is perhaps more unfair on his brother Andrew, whose family has borne the brunt of sniping comments from acquaintances. Andrew’s wife Clare has written about her frustration over the whole issue.

There have been awkward questions for the Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove who’s been accused of ‘flipping’ his second home. Mr Gove has given a robust defence to the most serious charges, but shows welcome contrition on some minor points.

I believe Mr Brown and Mr Gove are among many whose expenses may not look good, but who are (generally) above board. They will be annoyed about how their expenses have been portrayed, but I believe it will be good for them. At this stage, the situation is so severe, the public mistrust so widespread, that it is time for every MP to face the charges and mount their defence. One by one, they ought to take that opportunity to clear their name. The BBC has outlined the key charges and responses currently in the public domain. Check it out and judge for yourself. In my view, some MPs will need to mount a better defence than claim they acted “within the rules”.

The whole affair enhances the appeal of an early election. The Prime Minister’s authority is already weak. It would be a disaster if all remaining authority in the House of Commons is also allowed to drip away. That is what appears to be happening now. If there is to be no general election in the near future, I would like to see a swathe of resignations and by-elections. I doubt it will happen, but something must be done to stop the rot.

When is E-Day?

Much has been said about when the general election might be. Well-informed tongues began wagging ahead of the Labour conference in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first as Prime Minister. Should he call a snap election to consolidate his authority? As leader of the underdogs, David Cameron’s challenge was to frighten the PM and force a rethink. He was helped by some clever politicking by his Shadow Chancellor. In the end, there was no election and it became clear Mr Brown would aim to see out the mandate won by Tony Blair in 2005.

Today is four years on. Each of the previous two elections were held after four years (or thereabouts). Both of Margaret Thatcher’s re-elections were held after four years, but John Major held off until the five year mark on both occasions.

When might Mr Brown see fit to go to the country? My view is that the election will take place on 6th May 2010, one year tomorrow. The argument for this precise date is put succinctly and effectively by James Forsyth in the Spectator last week. Basically, we know the local elections will be held that day and he doesn’t think it will happen before then or afterwards.

6th May 2010 is (a day) more than five years. It surprised me to learn recently that the general election could take place more than five years after the previous one. But apparently so; it happened most recently in 1997. Parliament is elected for a five year term, after which the timetable for the next general election is set in motion automatically.

In practice, the Prime Minister normally requests a dissolution from the Monarch before this point, but it’s not necessary. An election next year could happen as late as 3rd June, or two weeks later if the Queen dies after she’s summoned a new parliament. But as James Forsyth explains, 6th May would seem to be the most likely date. 

Westminster
The Mother of Parliaments

Mr Brown has faced much flak for his failure to go to the country early to secure a personal mandate. He was criticised, partly because probably he would have won; but the philosophical reason is arguably more important. Had he sought the consent of the British people to govern, he could more easily point his critics to this and move on.

He also lacks a mandate from his party. His elevation to the premiership was something of an appointment by inevitability. Labour MPs knew Mr Brown would be their next  leader, so the vast majority of them pledged their support. Two challengers emerged, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, but neither could secure enough support (45 MPs) to force Mr Brown to face a wider vote.

So Mr Brown has neither a mandate from his party nor from the British people. His only real democratic authority comes from his constituency in Scotland. This reality harms him when he faces other challenges to his authority. So if he is replaced any time soon, would his successor call a snap election? I don’t think so.

All parties are ready for an election at any time. At least they should be. Even the party of government should be ready for when its leader decides it’s time to go to the country. Only the Prime Minister knows when he will do that, but his chief lieutenants must have a campaign plan ready at all times.

So, along with the others, Mr Cameron’s party is ready, Mr Clegg’s party is ready, and Mr Brown’s party is ready. But if Mr Brown is deposed, his party would no longer be ready to fight.

A new commander would need time to marshal his forces. He (or she) would need to draw up his own battle plan. A personal leadership vision would not be enough. A manifesto for government and an effective campaign to sell this message to the voters would take time to draw up. And in the midst of a crisis, the voters may not forgive any prime minister who decided to focus on electioneering instead of governing. The voters know the election will come soon enough. I believe they would rather wait for it, particularly if a key leader was unknown to them.

For Gordon Brown, it was different. He had ten years to prepare for the premiership, and the voters knew who he was. So he could have called a snap election. His replacement would be a fool to do so, particularly if the opinion polls remain stable.

The county council and European elections are on 4th June. This will be a key test. A good day for Labour will possibly settle the leadership question for now. But a bad day will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister. If he steps down, it will happen in June. A new leader would not be in place until, probably, August. At the earliest, a snap election could take place in September. But I suggest this will not happen.

I believe that, at the best of times, a new leader would want to wait at least three months before calling the election; perhaps even six months in the current economic climate. By that logic, an election would not take place before April. In that case, he might as well wait until 6th May, if only for the prospect of better weather. I believe the governing party benefits from a sunny day and Labour, in particular, benefits from a decent turnout.

But what is the likelihood of Mr Brown being turfed out now? I think it is slim. There is plenty of speculation about the leadership, but the next leader of the party will not want to begin a term in opposition after a crushing electoral defeat. Better to allow Mr Brown to take the hit. The circumstances of a stable overall majority for Labour are difficult to envisage; any victory is likely to be akin to John Major’s 21-seat majority of 1992 which had dwindled to precisely zero by 1997.

Who would want to take the helm during this storm? A caretaker, just for now, is a possibility. After all, if the skipper has lost command of his vessel, his crew must either step up or face doom. But if a caretaker is needed, Gordon Brown might as well stay on. For this purpose, he’s probably as good as anyone. The pretenders will recognise this soon. Expect them to close ranks almost immediately; certainly before the elections on 4th June. Watch the rats abandon ship in the year ahead (to a range of parties and some as independents), but Captain Brown will remain on the bridge.

A week is a long time in politics.
(Harold Wilson)

One might suppose that a year is somewhat longer. We will have to see that year out to understand what history reveals. But my prediction is this: the three main party leaders will all fight the next general election and the campaign will culminate on 6th May next year. One year tomorrow.