On Wednesday May 7, 1997, Tony Blair convened a meeting of the newly elected Parliamentary Labour Party at Church House in Westminster. There were 419 MPs in the chamber, the largest gathering by far of Labour members in history, fizzing with expectation and excitement. But Blair’s message to them was less a rallying cry than a warning. “You are not here to enjoy the trappings of power,” the new PM said, “but to do a job and to uphold the highest standards in public life. You are all ambassadors for New Labour and ambassadors for the Government.” Their power, Blair cautioned, was conditional and perilously fragile: “We are not the masters now. The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people. We will never forget that.”
Well, they have forgotten it, Tony – completely and utterly. Twelve and a half years on, the New Labour class of 1997 is merely one subgroup within a disgraced political class that is daily retreating ever further from reality, seething about the measures that have been taken to clean up the MPs’ allowances system, even threatening, in some cases, not to repay the sums calculated by Sir Thomas Legg’s investigations. Worst of all, our notional representatives seem to have little sense of the damage they are inflicting upon Parliament and the speed with which they are squandering what remains of the public’s trust. They fiddle their expenses while Rome burns.
The villain of the piece last week was Harriet Harman, stirring up MPs’ anger about the retrospective provisions in Sir Thomas’s recommendations. “We obviously have to judge things by the rules and standards that obtained at the time,” she told the Commons, in a sly answer at the Despatch Box on Thursday. “Doing anything else would be arbitrary.” Though the Leader of the House formally denies all claims of disloyalty, it is no secret that she believes Gordon Brown’s handling of the Legg inquiry to have been flat-footed and to have exposed MPs to unjust pressures. A cynical soul might think that there was going to be a Labour leadership contest in the next 12 months.
The heroes of the week, meanwhile, were Nick Clegg and John Bercow: and it’s not often you can say that. The Lib Dem leader showed the same sensitivity to public opinion that he did during the Gurkha controversy by pointing out the real problem with the Legg inquiry: not that it is too sweeping but that it is not sweeping enough. Sir Thomas should, as Mr Clegg demanded, have his terms of reference extended to include property arrangements, the egregious practice of “flipping” and the avoidance of Capital Gains Tax. It makes no sense to demand repayment from those who over-charged for gardening but not those who played the property game to private advantage at public expense.
The new Speaker of the House of Commons, for his part, told the BBC’s Week in Westminster yesterday that “the public has got to see and be satisfied that we have got the message that there is public displeasure, that the process has to be changed and there must be consequences for past claims if they can be shown to be demonstrably wrong or extravagant”. That’s spot on. The notion that public perception should drive decision-making at the highest levels has been given a bad name by the era of spin. But what Mr Bercow was referring to was not the daily battle for party political advantage, but the very survival of popular trust in an ancient institution.
It is as if Pugin’s masonry were falling all around MPs, the statues of Pitt, Gladstone and Churchill crashing at their feet, the Victoria Tower teetering on the brink of collapse. Yet still they refuse to accept the mortal peril they are all in.
Yes, it must be galling for MPs to find themselves subject to retrospective justice: the principle lex retro non agit is meant to be a precious one. But it is very far from inviolable. Judge-made law is, by definition, retrospective, setting precedents that were not in force when the events in question took place. Parliament can do what it likes and does so: the War Crimes Act of 1991 was retrospective, as are all manner of tax laws (most recently, and controversially, Section 58 of the Finance Act 2008).
In practice, all traumatised societies require a measure of retroactive justice as they move from one regime to another (look at German reunification for one recent example). When something has gone badly wrong in a tribe, or a grouping, or a nation, it is necessary to remember and correct: total amnesties rarely work if reconciliation is to be achieved. And it is this that MPs fail to grasp. Most of them still see the expenses scandal as an episode of bad housekeeping rather than the political earthquake that it was.
Oligarchies often seal themselves off from public opinion. Only rarely do they rebel, actively and scornfully, against the people they are meant to serve. David Wilshire, the retiring Tory MP for Spelthorne who paid £105,500 of his allowances to a company owned by him and his girlfriend, reportedly claims that his pay per hour “comes dangerously close to working out as the minimum wage.” The Labour backbencher Alan Simpson says he will not repay £500 for cleaning bills. Others rumble that their written dealings with the fees office have the force of contract and that Sir Thomas cannot override them. Sir Christopher Kelly’s separate review of the rules governing expenses is not due to be published until November 4, yet the whispering campaign against it has already begun. Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph revealed that 27 MPs are under investigation by HM Revenue and Customs over possible breaches of tax law. Could it be worse?
Yes, probably. And that is to nobody’s advantage. In the end, a political institution, whatever great volumes of rules it boasts, or mighty buildings, or glorious history, is no more than a fluid arrangement between governors and governed that depends entirely upon consent. As a country averse to revolution, we forget how precarious such arrangements are.
It will look different, of course, after the election. At least 111 MPs are retiring and many more incumbents will be toppled. There will be hundreds of fresh faces in the Commons. After he has settled into No 10, David Cameron will doubtless convene a meeting of his new and much-larger parliamentary party. He will warn them, as Blair did all those years ago, not to be seduced by the trappings of power, to remember always that the people are the masters. Will they listen?