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Following the great parliamentary expenses scandal from afar has been to view my home country through the wrong end of a telescope: so many scuttling figures, comically diminished in scale, like poor, tiny Douglas Hogg, with his flat cap and backpack, breathlessly hurrying down the street pursued by a giant fuzzy insect in the form of a microphone. ‘That is not correct. That is not correct,’ he told the insect, like a pedantic character in Alice in Wonderland. ‘The schedule was not a claims schedule, it was a letter.’

It was disconcerting to see Britain turn into a one-newspaper nation. All the broadsheets waited on the Telegraph, whose early edition supplied them with their front-page stories. Columnists across the political spectrum took their tone from the Telegraph’s style of half-ribald, half-sanctimonious indignation. Some MPs even tried to out-Telegraph the Telegraph in their expressions of penitential shock at the excesses they were encouraged to indulge in by the House of Commons Fees Office.

Alice would have had a hard time grasping the idea that this was a constitutional crisis that threatened the collapse of parliamentary democracy, for it appeared to hinge on the modest semantic question of the difference between an allowance and an expense account, which could surely have been quickly resolved by recourse to the dictionary. The OED says that an allowance is ‘a definite portion, sum or amount, allotted or granted to meet any expenses or requirements’, while expenses are ‘the charges, costs, items of outlay, incurred by a person in the execution of any commission or duty; “money out of pocket”; also, money paid to a person in reimbursement of these.’

But the Additional Costs Allowance is partly flesh and partly fowl, a creature with hairy paws and feathers like the Gryphon. It is an allowance – £23,083 at the last count – but with the catch that you must account for it after spending it before you can claim it. The safest way of getting it is to dump sheaves of bills at the Fees Office to prove that you’ve spent far more than the amount of the allowance and are therefore entitled to it in its entirety. Given the thicket of ambiguous rules and regulations set out in The Green Book: A Guide to Members’ Allowances, it’s not surprising that most MPs seem to have followed the example of Margaret Beckett, who confessed: ‘I just grabbed together the relevant things and bunged them into the Fees Office and left it to them to sort it out.’

So Gerald Kaufman, having spent £8865 on a Bang & Olufsen 40” BeoVision LCD TV, described by its manufacturers as an ‘entry-level’ model, wanted to claim his £750, the sum allowed for the purchase of a TV set. He’s since said that submitting the bill to the Fees Office was ‘a bit daft’ – a good phrase for the ACA itself, which was introduced in more or less its present form as a temporary fudge under Thatcher and was meant to boost MPs’ salaries while saving them from the embarrassment of passing a bill to raise their own pay. Its various provisions, which occupy eight pages of The Green Book, range from the perfectly opaque to the spuriously precise, and it’s inevitable that, in the course of the last quarter-century, the ACA has become barnacled with eccentric precedents, notable exceptions and mazy guidelines. Over the years, the MPs who claimed under it and the Fees Office which administered it seem to have got equally lost in its thickening fog.

Nadine Dorries, the generally irritating member for Mid-Bedfordshire, whose ditsy personal blog was shut down by lawyers acting for the Telegraph because she was saying rude things about the Barclay brothers, told the Today programme:

In my intake in 2005 things had changed, but prior to my intake in 2005 MPs were told, they were sat down and told by people in the Fees Office: ‘You haven’t been awarded pay rises, an MP’s salary is not commensurate with anybody else at your professional level, this pot of money has been awarded to you as an allowance. Not expenses. An allowance … Our job here is to help you maximise that.’

They probably wouldn’t have put it quite in those terms, but given what we’ve seen of comments made by the Fees Office on members’ claims, Dorries’s version seems a plausible paraphrase of their role as enablers rather than policemen.

Really major scandals make even the biggest countries appear to shrink to the size and social homogeneity of, say, the Isle of Man. The effect is greatly enhanced when the mass media all take to singing the same tune and, from here in Seattle, Britain now looks more like the Barclay brothers’ island of Brecqhou, that 200-acre dot in the Channel. One has to admire the adroitness with which the Telegraph has coloured and manipulated the data on its bootleg disc and controlled public access to its weeks-long Roman circus. At a time when print journalism is said to be terminally ill, an old-fashioned newspaper commandeered not only its rivals’ pages but the airwaves and cyberspace as well.

Some dark art went into the paper’s presentation of its material. All allowances paid to an MP over a period of between four and seven years were bundled together into one lump sum, thereby edging most members towards or past the symbolic threshold of £100,000. To the Telegraph, every bill submitted as supplementary evidence of total expenditure on a second home was a ‘claim’, even when it clearly wasn’t. On this basis, the paper’s favourite formula, ‘X spent £Y of taxpayers’ money on Z,’ was indiscriminately applied to any eye-catching item on a bill: scotch eggs, moats, duck islands, hair straighteners, wisteria. To keep the picture in unambiguous black and white, the Fees Office was cast – against all indications to the contrary – as the soul of probity, wringing its hands over its inability to prevent the venal schemes of the rampaging horde of greedy parliamentarians.

In its transformation into the Voice of Britain, the paper underwent a dramatic change of character, sounding more like the populist Sun than its former self, as it ventured deep into come-off-it-mate territory. Headlines promised revelations about ‘Tory Country Gents’, ‘Toffs’ and ‘Grandees’. In the Telegraph of old, such people were meant to be its readers; now the paper used Google Earth to zoom in on their disgraceful acreages of paddock, lawn, ha-ha, lake and wood, where a feature of the landscape was signalled by a chunky scarlet arrow, and accompanied by a caption such as ‘Cutting the grass at David Davis’s home is very expensive.’

The newly demotic Telegraph has exposed a lot of predictable wangles and fiddles, along with a very few cases of prima facie fraud, which may or may not stand the test of criminal prosecution. But it has used a brush so broad and coarse that, for every small iniquity it has uncovered, it has held up to public ridicule an MP who was evidently trying his or her best to abide by the maddeningly flimsy and elastic rules. Affecting an air of judicial balance, it published a list of ‘saints’ – MPs who claimed little or nothing on their ACA. Many of these have seats in suburban London; one saint, Glenda Jackson, sits for the Inner London constituency of Hampstead and Highgate and is therefore ineligible for the allowance anyway. The effect of this list was only to underline the impression that the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians are deep in sin. Taken as a whole, the Telegraph’s huge and bloated story has cheerily endorsed the stupid wisdom of the Dog and Duck and the Bricklayer’s Arms in regard to politicians: on the make, the lot of them, they’ve all got their snouts in the same trough – a line as dangerous as it is untrue.

In another year or season, the story might have had less explosive force, but its publication last month was one of those miracles of timing that are as much a matter of luck as of design. With the recession deepening beneath its feet, jobs evaporating overnight, houses repossessed, retirement portfolios dwindling, the public was in a state of fury at fat cats and hungry for revenge. Breaking three windows of Sir Fred Goodwin’s house in Edinburgh and vandalising his Mercedes must have been fun for the people who did it, but didn’t go far towards supplying the longed-for catharsis. When the government declared itself powerless to interfere with the hated bankers’ bonuses and pension schemes, the fury grew. It needed whipping-boys, scapegoats, sacrificial victims: people who could be toppled and hurt as Sir Fred could not. The Telegraph story broke like an answered prayer. In the days that followed 7 May, there was hardly a town or county in Britain without a designated wretch to pelt with sharp stones, rotten eggs and the threat of deselection.

Most stories about peculation are so complicated that one needs an advanced diploma in accountancy to follow them. This one’s easy. The bills and receipts that MPs filed with the Fees Office are redolent of that now bygone period of easy credit, 125 per cent mortgages, buy-to-let, holiday homes, house prices forever on the up-and-up, Britain on a live-now-pay-later boom. Future novelists and screenwriters will treasure the Telegraph archives for their fascinating dossier on the way we lived then.

It seems that everybody was buying champagne flutes in the early 21st century, and no wonder, since they had much to celebrate. Greg Barker, the member for Bexhill and Battle, bought a flat in Pimlico for £480,000 in November 2004, then sold it in February 2007 for £800,000: £320,000 in 27 months works out at nearly £12,000 a month, cause for anyone to break out the Dom Pérignon. Two years ago, when mortgages were still machines for spinning money, a lot of people might have taken heart from Barker’s story; now they want to throttle him not just for dodging capital gains tax but for having had the savvy to sell at the top of the market – and champagne flutes have gone right out of fashion, especially when caught in the possession of MPs.

The stuff they bought holds up a faithful mirror to middle and upper-middle class Britain in the high-rolling years: Möben kitchens; appliances by Siemens, Bosch and Miele; granite countertops; Nigella Lawson mezzaluna herb choppers; Panasonic TVs; Bose iPod docking stations; Roman blinds; Corby trouser presses; Jacuzzis; Montblanc pens. As consumers, parliamentarians are a socially conformist bunch: they shopped for furniture and fabrics at John Lewis, Harrods, Laura Ashley, Heal’s, the House of Fraser, Debenhams, Habitat, IKEA, BoConcept and OKA; when looking for deals they went to Argos, Currys, Comet, Marks & Sparks, B&Q and Woolworths, until it closed. They love their gardens, and spent liberally on plants, flower boxes, lawnmowers (both human and mechanical) and pea shingle. When they spent the night in hotels (the Savoy, Le Méridien in Piccadilly, the Zetter in Clerkenwell, the Bentley in Kensington), they were prone to hit the minibar, like Alistair Burt, member for North-East Bedfordshire, whose late-night snacking on Pringles, mixed nuts, Coca-Cola, mineral water, gin and tonic, Heineken and lemonade is gleefully reported by the Telegraph in exhaustive detail over a period of nine months.

The bills – with the exception of those rendered by a few Tory landowners – cut clean across party lines. For the most part, it would be hard to guess if the claimant was Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. What can be reconstructed from them is a single style of life, almost a single human being: someone comfortably prosperous, a stone or two overweight, no intellectual (but then there was no allowance for books), a devotee of Sky Sports, which he watches on a TV whose plasma screen is more than twice the diagonal measurement of mine, from a newish sofa with his feet up on the matching pouffe.

Only a year or so ago, this character and his spending habits would hardly have inspired mass hatred, but that was before David Cameron, always quick to spot the latest fad, announced the coming of the Culture of Thrift. With newspapers devoting their cookery columns to recipes for leftovers and dinners for two for ‘under a fiver’, the standard-issue MP, taking advantage of his allotted perks, could be seen as a monster of profligacy.

It would be nice to think that there’s an element of remorse, even self-loathing, in the general pandemic of disgust spread by the Telegraph. For my own part, I can report that going through the enormous heap of bills in virtual form has felt a lot like grimly counting the bottles on a hungover Sunday morning after a merry Saturday night: they are so familiar, so banal, so incriminatingly pre-2008. And I can’t quite rise to the high dudgeon of ‘at taxpayers’ expense’, which seems a little disingenuous since MPs’ salaries, no less than their allowances, are paid at taxpayers’ expense. Wouldn’t one sooner see parliamentarians’ clobber being paid for by the taxpayer than by Mohamed al-Fayed or the ‘business clients’ of the two recently suspended members of the House of Lords?

For as long as I can remember, MPs have been coming down in the world. Fifty years ago, they were very big cheeses indeed: glamorously remote figures who showed up late and left early when they attended hunt balls, civic receptions, Remembrance Day ceremonies and the occasional Rotary Club dinner. One could easily go for years without spotting one in the wild. But all that’s changed. Now that MPs hold weekly surgeries back in their constituencies and, like Kleeneze salesmen and Mormon missionaries, have stood on nearly every doorstep in the land, their glamour’s pretty much gone. By working harder than they used to do, and making themselves far more available to their constituents, they’ve simultaneously increased their value as public servants and lost a great deal of the prestige that once went with the job.

Question Time, broadcast from Grimsby on 14 May, shed an interesting light on the changed relationship between MPs and the electorate. The British papers reported that Margaret Beckett and Menzies Campbell had been ‘heckled’ by the audience, but that isn’t what I saw. Heckling’s a de bas en haut activity, something done by the groundlings to the people put in authority over them. In Grimsby, Beckett and Campbell were lectured, hauled over the coals, given what for, and told what was what by the audience, but there were few actual heckles – a boo here, a shout of ‘Rubbish!’ there. When Beckett and Campbell spoke, the stony and censorious expression on the faces in the auditorium was like that of a manager hearing out an office junior’s tangled explanation of what had become of the petty cash.

Beckett annoyed them most. With her wearily tolerant smile and over-enunciated syllables, she brought to the table a manner of self-conscious ministerial authority which the audience took up as a challenge to put her in her place. By contrast, Theresa May, the MP for Maidenhead, escaped censure altogether. No one interrupted or snapped back at her because, unlike the other two, she clearly expected no deference from the audience, and appeared entirely comfortable with the new egalitarian order of things.

Age came into this. May (b. 1956) is a good deal younger than Beckett (b. 1943) and Campbell (b. 1941), both of whom are old enough to have been brought up in the culture of deference to rank, offices and titles. The idea that MPs, because they are MPs, are entitled to certain privileges denied to lesser mortals, probably dies hardest among the generation of parliamentarians who were born before 1945. The bus-pass and walking-stick crowd have given the best value in terms of derisible quotes. ‘Do you know what it is about? Jealousy,’ Anthony Steen (b. 1939) told The World at One. A consequence of the avalanche of resignations and deselections now in train will be a much younger House of Commons, whose members will be less likely to stand haughtily on the dignities of office.

Members of the audience on Question Time were, on the whole, more interesting to listen to than the panel. Though unanimous in their anger (and they were furious), their contributions were generally grounded in moderation and common sense. Big rounds of applause greeted people who spoke of how the scandal was providing a potential opening for the BNP and of how most MPs were OK in themselves but had been led astray by a rotten allowances system. One woman seemed to be speaking for Grimsby at large – she could hardly talk for the clapping that interrupted her – when she said:

I’m really, really sad about this. In fact, I’m losing sleep about it. I think on 4 June the most awful thing will happen and we’ll get BNP in. And I have a major problem with this. I really, really struggle because I know we do have some decent MPs. Strangely, I don’t think Austin [Austin Mitchell, Grimsby’s MP since 1977] has done anything hugely wrong, but he’s an idiot about it.

In the UK press’s coverage of the public mood, too little has been heard from ‘the lady up there on the right’, as David Dimbleby called her. Her perception that MPs have behaved more like idiots than scoundrels is reassuringly clear-headed and proportionate to this weird affair.

Meanwhile the Telegraph, vaingloriously drunk on its own scoop, calls for the tumbrils and the guillotine. ‘The political class,’ it snarled in a recent editorial, ‘is now conducting itself with the insensate arrogance of the latter-day Bourbons,’ and, with what appears to be the same thought in mind, David Cameron says: ‘We need a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power.’ In the massive, sweeping, radical department, an assault on incautious rhetorical expenditure by newspapers on a jihad, as by politicians scenting an election in the offing, might be more to the point.

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