It feels all rather familiar. MPs, under scrutiny, protesting they have done nothing wrong. MPs, under scrutiny, insisting their expenses are all within the rules. And MPs, under scrutiny, fearful of the next day’s front pages and who is going to fall under the spotlight next.
Over the last two weeks, a harsh light has been shone on the machinery of parliament, which has shown yet again how some MPs still live in a world entirely removed from their constituents. It has left the public angry and forced our prime minister to insist on the world stage that the UK is not “remotely corrupt”.
Such has been the extent of the coverage, that it didn’t take long for it to be compared with the UK’s last great political fallout, the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. Back then, I was part of The Telegraph’s team who spent six weeks in a fetid, windowless room poring over spreadsheets, receipts and extraordinary claims.
Day by day, my colleagues and I were amazed by the boldness with which MPs had got stuck into the expenses system, freely using it as an add-on to their self-ascribed “modest” salaries.
Initially, MPs were indignant, furious even, that they had been caught flipping their mortgages, claiming rent on properties they never lived in or were actually lived in by their children. Equally memorable were the outlandish claims worth thousands of pounds for upscale sofas – or was it a chaise longue? – vast televisions or inventories for the absurd.
On the day Sir Peter Viggers’s claim for his notorious duck house was discovered, the team ground to a halt to marvel at the evidence. It really had been purchased. The claim really had been made. And you really could see the Stockholm Duck Island in situ from space.
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As the days turned to weeks, anger over the claims turned to fear. Every MP dreaded the sound of their mobile phone ringing. Even those who were “saints” would answer tremulously when you called and there would be palpable relief when they realised they were not going to be named and shamed. Others, caught red-handed, would leave hours – driving The Telegraph’s lead lawyer into a frenzy – before issuing a shame-faced missive, owning up to all.
Nadine Dorries – a well known figure during that summer – insists this time around that it’s not the same and that 2009 was “a billion times worse”. Of course, the revelations over the past fortnight are not so widespread or on the same scale. But they are deeply unedifying and raise an issue which should make the Conservatives more, rather than less, concerned. For the MPs in the spotlight this time around – mainly Conservative again – belong to a party which is actually in power, with a working majority and able to bring about change. If it does not, as grandees such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind have warned, it could turn out very badly indeed for Boris Johnson at the helm.
Secondly, and crucially, the new crop of young MPs who arrived at Westminster hot on the heels of the expenses scandal, determined to do things differently, will feel huge anger. They came into power as a direct result of what had gone before and have no interest in being tarnished with the same brush that did so much damage 12 years ago.
So Johnson needs to act – and act fast – to ensure journalists asking the same questions and investigating the same issues don’t spend the next six weeks uncovering more uncomfortable truths.