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Vol. 31 No. 12 · 25 June 2009

A report from Westminster

Chris Mullin

8 May, Sunderland. A massive new feeding frenzy. The Telegraph has got its hands on a computer disc of our unexpurgated expenses claims and has begun publishing highlights. Page after unedifying page . . . The damage is incalculable. Not just to us, but to the entire parliamentary system. We are sinking in a great swamp of derision and loathing. No matter that the guardians of public morality at the Telegraph appear to have paid a large – and so far undisclosed – sum of money for discs that seem to have been stolen, open season has been declared on we wretched, despised servants of the people.

9 May. The Telegraph’s unrelenting assault continues, with most, but not quite all, the media joining in. ‘THE SHAMING OF PARLIAMENT’ (Independent), ‘IT STINKS’ (Sun), ‘SHAMELESS’ (Express). The Mirror has a montage of a gravy train, with leading members of the two main parties on board, hitting the buffers. So far, with two minor exceptions, only Labour members have been targeted and there is an air of banality and overspin about some of the allegations. One or two of the more perceptive commentators are beginning to question whether or not the pudding is being over-egged, but there is no doubting the overall impact.

10 May. On the evening news, the first indication that the Telegraph is preparing to turn its attention to the Tories. First up, Oliver Letwin, who apparently claimed £2000 to install a drainage pipe under his tennis court. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson remarked, ‘the political class has lost control of this story. No one knows where it’s going.’

11 May. To Westminster. Entire place traumatised. No one talking about anything else. The Speaker gave a right bollocking to Kate Hoey and Norman Baker for allegedly colluding with our oppressors in the media. A good five minutes’ worth. I’ve never seen him so worked up. Actually, it was way over the top. Gave the impression he is rattled, which I imagine he is.
 Then to a jam-packed meeting of the parliamentary party. The chairman, Tony Lloyd, opened with a little pep talk, remarking that there was ‘a duty on us collectively not to give into despair’. (Yes, that’s how bad it is.) Then Gordon, eyes half-closed with fatigue, spoke. This was Gordon like I’ve never seen him before. He spoke with real passion. As good as Blair at his best, coming out fighting. He sat down to a thunderous, heartfelt standing ovation, entirely spontaneous. Anyone who thinks Gordon will go quietly, however rough the going gets, is badly mistaken.

12 May. For the second day running the spotlight is on the Tories. Not for them sordid little claims for bath plugs or plasma TVs. No, they’ve been at it on an altogether different scale, with outrageous claims for housekeepers, repairs to tennis courts, swimming-pools; there’s even a suggestion that Douglas Hogg claimed for cleaning out his moat. The papers are suddenly full of pictures of Home Counties mansions set in acres of manicured lawns, straight out of Country Life, allegedly maintained at taxpayers’ expense. Proof, in case anyone has forgotten, that the class divide is alive and well. A reporter from the BBC has even had fun touring the Tory estates by helicopter. We laugh, but it is dragging us all down.
 A long, sad, whispered conversation with a senior cabinet member who has decided not to contest the election, which means he will have to stand down come the reshuffle in a few weeks. ‘I’m in a job I love,’ he says, ‘but I can’t go on.’ He added: ‘Forcing Tony Blair out was the stupidest thing we ever did.’
 Whole place sunk in gloom. Pleasure at the latest revelations about Tory excesses is tempered by the knowledge that we are all vulnerable. Once the national media lose interest the local papers will start. Already the Journal is ringing round North-East MPs asking us to volunteer our expense claims, so they can trawl through them at leisure, picking us off one by one.

13 May. Payback time. A bidding war has broken out between the main parties to see who can display more repentance. Cameron (who has repaid the cost of having his wisteria trimmed – Tory excesses are so much more elegant than ours) is leading the field with an ultimatum to eight of his shadow cabinet that they must repay the cost of maintaining their tennis courts, swimming-pools etc, or else . . . On our side, Hazel Blears (who surely will not survive the coming reshuffle) has agreed that she will, after all, be paying capital gains tax on one of her several former residences, and tonight an ever so ’umble Phil Hope announced he would be repaying a staggering £40,000 – the record so far.

14 May. To Clarence House, to be entertained to drinks and a stand-up lunch by the Prince of Wales. Fellow guests included a number of Tory grandees. The fate of Speaker Martin was much discussed. A definite mood on the Tory side that he must go. I strolled back through the park with Kate Hoey. ‘A pity you are standing down,’ she said. ‘You’d make an excellent Speaker.’
 To my dismay, today’s roll-call of The Fallen includes Elliot Morley, who appears to have been charging for a mortgage that was long ago repaid.

15 May. This evening’s Sunderland Echo highlights the expenses of local MPs. The only figures mentioned are the London allowance totals for last year, which show me in a good light, my claim being just over half those of my neighbours. There is also an editorial remarking on my general saintliness. I derive no satisfaction.
 I scribbled a note to Elliot Morley, who whatever his sins, is a decent man and was an excellent minister: ‘Remember,’ I wrote, ‘you are not short of friends.’

18 May. Growing crisis re Speaker Martin. This afternoon he stumbled through a statement saying he was ‘profoundly sorry’ for the mess we are in and acknowledging his part in it. Then Douglas Carswell, the Tory backwoodsman who has tabled a motion of no confidence, rose and demanded that time be made available for a debate. ‘It’s not a substantive motion,’ the Speaker replied. ‘Oh yes it is,’ came voices from all sides. Extraordinary. I’ve never seen the Speaker heckled before. It was like watching Ceausescu’s final appearance, when the crowd turned against him.
 Later, to a packed meeting of the parliamentary party. Frank Dobson was first up. ‘Be warned,’ he said, ‘the Lib Dems and the Tories have not abandoned party politics.’ There was, he alleged, a three-part strategy. When they had disposed of the Speaker, they would demand Gordon’s resignation. If they got that, they would demand an immediate general election on the grounds that we couldn’t have yet another Labour leader without an electoral mandate. ‘And anyone who thinks that an immediate general election would be of benefit to the people who voted us in, is not on this planet.’ He sat down to applause. Gordon was again received warmly. For the first time since the crisis began, he appears to have a plan. At last, some leadership. We went away mildly cheered.

19 May. To a crowded chamber to hear the Speaker announce his resignation. A short, dignified statement lasting all of 30 seconds and then back to business as usual. Except, of course, that there is nothing usual about today’s business. The place is buzzing. Some of our number regard what has happened as a coup by the Tories and the media. Re the succession, names in the frame include Alan Beith, Vince Cable, Frank Field, Alan Haselhurst, Ann Widdecombe, George Young and, most remarkable of all, John Bercow, who many on our side favour as a way of getting back at the Tories. I should also report that one other wildly improbable name has been mentioned: moi. ‘Mr Speaker Mullin,’ Nick Robinson called as I was on the phone in the Members’ Lobby, and when I laughed he said: ‘Several people have mentioned your name.’ And tonight, on Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman asked if I was running. Much as I’d love to, I can’t, of course, because in a little while I will be gone . . .

20 May. The Paxman interview has set a hare running. North-East media very excited. Apparently the story has been on the local radio all day. Several encouraging emails. Actually, although a long shot, it is not an impossible dream. Or at least it wouldn’t be were I staying. There is undoubtedly a gap in the market.
 The Telegraph reports that I claimed for a black and white TV licence, the subject of much amusement among my colleagues. Today’s tabloids are particularly vicious. Not for them magnanimity in victory. ‘Arise Lord Gorbals’, the front page of the Mail sneers over a story focusing on the size of the Speaker’s pension.

21 May. Sure enough, having disposed of the Speaker, the Tory media have launched a campaign for a snap election – exactly as Frank Dobson predicted. The Sun is leading the charge with a coupon demanding an immediate election which readers are invited to cut out and send to Gordon. It couldn’t be more blatant.

22 May. Awoke to hear the Tory MP Nadine Dorries on the radio predicting a suicide or two if the hysteria continues. The Telegraph’s revelation that I still possess a 30-year-old black and white TV has provided a little light relief. A leader in the Guardian in praise of . . . Chris Mullin: ‘At a time when the political class is so discredited, it is worth recalling those like Mr Mullin who do some good. What a shame he steps down at the next election.’ Indeed.

27 May. A bidding war has broken out between the parties, each leader striving to prove he is more in command than his rivals. Today the unctuous Nick Clegg is proposing that errant MPs be subject to instant recall – a recipe for tabloid rabble-rousing if ever there was.

28 May. To Symonds Yat, which overlooks a spectacular loop on the Wye, surely the most beautiful river in England. We picnicked in sunshine by the river and crossed back via a little hand-pulled ferry to find the secretary of state for Wales, Paul Murphy, sitting with three clergymen on the other bank. Back to our lodging to discover that two more heads have rolled: Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran.

29 May. Like those in the Big Brother house we wake up each day to see who is in danger of eviction. Today’s candidate is Bill Cash, who has been renting a flat from his daughter, but assuming he has been paying no more than the market rent, it is hard to see how the taxpayer is out of pocket. He didn’t sound all that repentant.

1 June. Day 24 of the Telegraph assault on the political classes. Today they are leading with a new attack on Alistair Darling. Apparently he claimed for a service charge, paid in advance, on his flat in Kennington shortly before moving to Number 11. The suggestion is that he should have remembered to repay the money. As if he didn’t have one or two other things on his mind. This looks like an attempt to bring him down.
 As I walked in through Speaker’s Court, who should I see but Tony Blair, looking tanned and fit, surrounded by bag-carriers and bodyguards. Just like old times. He must be glad to be out of it. Even his considerable skills couldn’t dig us out of the big, dark pit into which we have fallen.

2 June. The wheels are coming off. This morning it was confirmed that Jacqui Smith will be standing down as home secretary come the reshuffle, which is feverishly anticipated as soon as the Euro elections are out of the way. No great surprise, but how come it leaked out now? A little while later Beverley Hughes announced that she, too, will be going. That is a surprise, given that she is so far unscathed and might reasonably have expected preferment. Then Tom Watson in the Cabinet Office announced that he, too, would be leaving. As if all that wasn’t enough, the ‘Star Chamber’ set up by the Labour Party National Executive announced that four of the big expenses offenders would not be permitted to contest the next election: three of them are going quietly, but Ian Gibson, who still has the backing of his local party, protested loudly and with some justification. As someone remarked, in his case it looks like a contract killing of someone who was a thorn in the side of the regime.
 A chat with a prominent economic commentator. He sees definite signs of green shoots. The stock market and the pound are rising, the banks and the housing market have stabilised. ‘The measures taken last autumn have stopped an immediate crisis.’
 Rumours that unnamed backbenchers are organising a round robin letter, calling on Gordon to go. Treat with caution. The last time this happened – when Blair was looking wobbly – it turned out to have been concocted by some think tank.

3 June. A lengthy editorial in the Guardian calling on Gordon to go. Meanwhile the cabinet seems to be reshuffling itself, without waiting for him. Today Hazel Blears announced her resignation. Exquisite timing (one day before Euro elections) from this so-called ultra loyalist, but she has had the black spot on her ever since she had to cough up £13,000 in unpaid capital gains tax to the Inland Revenue. Inevitably, her departure – along with yesterday’s resignations – has triggered a media frenzy about Gordon’s future. My guess is he will survive, but it is touch and go. Removing him by force would be very messy and leave us with embittered henchpersons wandering about causing trouble. Talking of which, people are asking why the Telegraph has been having a second bash at Alistair Darling. Is he being briefed against with a view to installing Ed Balls at the Treasury? Surely they can’t still be at it.
 ‘What’s your majority?’ I asked a colleague.
 ‘Six thousand,’ she replied.
 ‘Iffy,’ I gently suggested.
 ‘I’m past caring.’
 Still no sign of the rumoured ‘Gordon must go’ letter, though the hacks are ringing round asking people if they’ve signed.

4 June. Euro election day. Huge slaughter anticipated, although the results will not be known until the weekend.
 A call from the Mail on Sunday. ‘Would you like to write a piece on the poisonous atmosphere at Westminster?’ I pointed out that they are not short of staffers who have devoted their lives to doing precisely that and they don’t need any help from me. Also a spoof email, purporting to be from Alistair Darling, inviting me to sign up to a ‘Gordon must go’ campaign. Someone has even gone to the trouble of setting up an Alistair Darling mailbox to receive replies. My guess is that this is a Sunday newspaper sting. I doubt any of our number will fall for it, but you never know.
 This evening, no sooner had the polls closed than up pops Barry Sheerman demanding that Gordon stand down. Minutes later comes word that the pensions secretary, James Purnell, has resigned, leaving behind a message calling on Gordon to go. At least, unlike Hazel, he had the decency to wait until the election was over. How much more of this can we take?

5 June. Awoke to hear Paul Farrelly, the backbencher fingered by Number 10 as being behind the round robin, indignantly denying that he had anything to do with it. So far nobody has taken up James Purnell’s challenge, but the day is young . . .
 Home to discover that the Europe minister, Caroline Flint, has flounced out of the government, complaining that she’s been used as window-dressing. What is she playing at? Only last night she was on the news bulletins swearing undying loyalty.

6 June. After days of angst the deckchairs on the Titanic have been rearranged. Alistair Darling is staying put. Peter Mandelson will henceforth be known as ‘first secretary’, which effectively means deputy prime minister. Incredibly, he has found a way of making himself indispensable again, not that his considerable talents aren’t urgently needed. Alan Johnson becomes home secretary. Bob Ainsworth replaces John Hutton at defence and Peter Hain returns as Welsh secretary. Not forgetting Alan Sugar, who has been appointed ‘enterprise tsar’ in place of the unlamented Digby Jones. Another classic piece of gimmickry which will inevitably backfire. Whatever next? Susan Boyle for culture minister?

7 June. Tonight’s Euro election results produce the predicted meltdown. We polled 16 per cent, beaten into third place by Ukip. On this showing, or anything resembling it, we face annihilation come the general election, unless we can persuade the nation to talk about something other than our expenses or the character of our leader.

8 June. To a jam-packed party meeting, billed by some as the final showdown between Gordon and his critics. The corridor outside was jammed with lobby correspondents and even a couple of Tory MPs observing from a discreet distance. The entire cabinet was jammed into the space behind the platform, Peter Mandelson in pole position, scribbling furiously. Gordon, it must be said, was looking in remarkably good shape, considering the storms that rage around him. He was greeted warmly, speaking calmly and confidently, right hand in trouser pocket, scarcely glancing at his notes. If only the public could see him like this. There was an air of humility. ‘I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses. I’ve learned we need the talents of everyone.’ Hastily adding, for the avoidance of doubt, ‘when you’ve got a problem, you don’t solve it by walking away.’ He sat down to much applause and banging on table tops.
 The contributions from the floor were a mixture of pleas for unity and calls for a change of leader. Several people warned that a change of leader would result in irresistible pressure for an immediate election, which would not be in the interests of those we represent. By and large all sides were heard in respectful silence, although one or two contributions attracted mild heckling. By the end it was clear that Gordon was safe, but it was a close-run thing. If Alan Johnson or David Miliband had jumped ship, the game would have been well and truly up. The hope is that we can make it to the summer recess without any more calamities. After that, who knows?

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Vol. 31 No. 13 · 9 July 2009

I was heartened to read in Chris Mullin’s Diary that Elliot Morley is not short of friends (LRB, 25 June). I do hope that, wherever Mr Morley ends up, he continues to see some of those friends, during designated visiting hours.

Harry Stopes
London N4

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