Back in 2009, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, there were plenty of hilarious, infuriating and odd examples of politicians wasting taxpayers’ money. Some have become immortal – duck houses, moat repairs, Jacqui Smith’s porn claim and so on.
Sadly, one of my favourites has largely been forgotten – the case of David Tredinnick MP, who charged the taxpayer for the software and tuition required so he could become an astrologer. No, not an astronomer like Brian Cox or the much-lamented Patrick Moore – an astrologer. Think Nostradamus, carnival sideshow con artists and newspaper horoscope columns that say things like “As the new phase of Venus enters the Cancerian optimum, consider buying a scratch card – or a second hand Vauxhall.”
I wrote about it for the TPA at the time, suggesting the public might like to email Mystic Tredinnick and request he read their future, given that they had paid for his so-called education. He didn’t take it very well, and as far as I’m aware he never did agree to give out any lottery numbers in advance – though he did later agree to pay back the money he had claimed.
This wasn’t a one-off. As well as his taxpayer-funded foray into the territory of Gypsy Rose Lee, the Member for Bosworth has also pressed the NHS to fund homeopathy, claimed that “remote healing” via telekinesis works despite the total absence of evidence and argued that surgeons and police officers should plan their work according to the cycle of the moon.
Now it has come to my attention, via The Geek Manifesto, that not only is the Parliamentary equivalent of Paul Daniels still going, but he has been elected onto the Science and Technology Select Committee. This is an MP who not only believes in just about every debunked alternative therapy going, but who openly and repeatedly places anecdotal evidence above statistical studies. The ability and the willingness to assess and weigh evidence is the foundation of science – and yet science policy will now be studied by someone who rejects the very concept of what is and is not evidence.
One of the Select Committee’s upcoming Inquiries is into the way clinical drug trials are carried out in the UK. Will the people really be best served by someone who rejects the evidential proof that homeopathy does not work?
It doesn’t take David Tredinnick’s crystal ball to see that this is a car crash waiting to happen.
It would be in my interests for Brian Leveson to support statutory regulation of the press tomorrow.
As Guido Fawkes writes in the Wall Street Journal today, putting a legislative leash around the neck of the mainstream media will only have one effect – to drive a truth-hungry public to online outlets and blogs for real news and honest insight.
This has always happened. When the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union censored what could be published, people shipped in or built their own presses and produced samizdat – illicit, underground news-sheets and books that circulated in secret. It is notable that the Russian word “samizdat” literally means “self-published”.
Samizdats were never expected to be subject to balance, they were explicitly written from a particular perspective and, most of all, they gloried in saying whatever they wanted – not saying what others demanded they say.
If, 50 years ago, people’s hunger for a free speaking press was sufficient that they were willing to transport and conceal large pieces of industrial machinery, the internet will have a far easier job of it.
Information is a commodity in its own right. It can be bought and sold, it can be given away or stolen, its price can be increased or devalued. And just the same as any other commodity, the one thing that cannot be done to it is successful prohibition.
The problem – and those who dislike our free press do view it as a problem – is the twin, trickster forces of supply and demand. The more people are interested in something, the higher its price rises and the harder it is to keep secret. The harder you try to keep it secret, the larger the incentive becomes to leak it – be it for cash or cachet.
This is what happened with MPs’ expenses. Yes, Heather Brooke fought a brilliant legal battle for the public’s right to know, but the scandal really broke when the censorship practiced by Commons authorities created such a high-paying Black Market that an insider was willing to sell the data to the Daily Telegraph.
These forces are inevitable, irresistible and they won’t be changed by legislating to make our press unfree. If the Daily Telegraph hadn’t been in a position to buy and publish MPs’ expenses, then someone else would have done so – on the internet, offshore and out of reach of the fat, black marker pens of Westminster’s quiet censors.
For goodness’ sake, the net filtering out forbidden commodities isn’t even tight enough to catch guns, grenades and tonnes of drugs – can anyone really believe it could be made tight enough to catch something as small and as fleet of foot as knowledge?
So I, and Guido, and a thousand other blogs yet to be born would be in a pretty good position should Brian Leveson persuade the Government to end three hundred years of British press freedom. Advertising would increase, traffic would boom, and everyone would be able to feel every shade of smug about their latest Google Analytics numbers.
But you won’t find me cheering for it. What would be the attraction of being a more widely read, or even a richer, libertarian in a country that has become less free? No, I’d rather miss out on the opportunity, thank you very much, Brian.
There is a particular type of news story which British politics alone produces. Maybe it’s to do with our politicians, our media or our national sense of humour, but it’s undeniable that Westminster has an amazing capacity to produce scandals which give a prominent part to odd (and otherwise insignificant) items.
The case of Rebekah Brooks’ horse, which it has emerged was ridden by David Cameron once despite No 10′s previous denials, is a classic example. The story is interesting due to its part in the ongoing discussion of relationships between politicians, the media and the police, but in itself it’s not that interesting. On paper, it doesn’t deserve front page billing – and yet it is almost certain to be on the front page of several of tomorrow’s papers.
What propels into media stardom is the very fact that the whole thing centres around a horse – and it is this kind of peculiar political prop that British journalists and audiences absolutely revel in.
In order to further the study of this phenomenon, here are CrashBangWallace.com’s Top 10 Weird Political Scandal Props:
1) Ron Davies’ “badger”
The former Secretary of State for Wales was forced to quit politics after being photographed by The Sun apaprently cruising for sex in the woods. So far, so run-of-the-mill sex scandal. It was, however, his claim that he had been “watching badgers” that made the story famous, notorious and memorable. The badger is distinguished particularly by being a Political Scandal Prop which did not actually exist. (As an aside, almost as memorable a prop provided by Davies was the word “sorry” which he wrote on his hand before TV interviews to remind himself to say it…)
2) Michael Foot’s Donkey Jacket
Michael Foot was a disastrous Labour leader for many reasons (not least the “longest suicide note in history”), but he is still remembered for wearing what appeared to be a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day in 1981. As it turned out, it wasn’t a donkey jacket after all, and the Queen Mother reportedly liked it, but the impression that he was treating the ceremony with disrespect stuck both on his reputation and in the memories of the public.
3) The Duck House
In modern times, the £1,645 Duck House claimed on MPs’ expenses by Sir Peter Viggers is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Weird Political Scandal Props genre. The fact that no-one knew what a duck house was before Sir Peter gave the UK’s duck house industry a publicity boost helped the story to come to be emblematic of the entire MPs’ expenses scandal. Ask someone in the street what they remember about MPs’ expenses and they are certain to mention the accommodation facilities provided to Viggers’ mallards.
4) John Gummer’s burger
In 1990, at the height of the BSE/CJD panic, Agriculture Minister John Gummer attempted to calm the public by feeding a beef burger to his daughter. As if the deployment of a young child, or the attempt to feed her allegedly dangerous meat, wasn’t bad enough, young Miss Gummer refused to eat it, so her father tucked in for the cameras instead.
5) David Mellor’s Chelsea Kit
In the firestorm of scandals engulfing John Major’s Government, David Mellor’s affair with Antonia de Sancha still stands out – purely due to her claims that he asked her to wear a Chelsea shirt while they had sex. In the 90s, sleaze was all too common, but sleaze with such an odd prop proved legendary.
6) William Hague’s baseball cap
The newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, in opposition for the first time in 18 years and battered from the grim decline of the Major years, went on an immediate drive to appear young and in touch. For some reason, this involved wearing a baseball cap on a log flume at a theme park - a move which was roundly mocked from the left and the right. (A close runner up for William Hague was the 14 pints that he claimed to regularly drink in a day when younger.)
7) Humphrey the Downing Street Cat
Shortly after the Blairs moved into Downing Street in 1997, Humphrey the cat, who had been in residence since 1989, was unceremoniously forced to move out. Medical reasons were cited for his retirement (“spending more time with his family” presumably being inapplicable), but rumours abounded that Cherie Blair had taken a dislike to him – or even had him murdered, according to Alan Clark.
8 ) The egg that hit John Prescott
In 2001, countryside protester and mullet-wearer Craig Evans threw an egg at John Prescott. The one thing he probably didn’t expect was for Prezza to wallop him in return. There were calls for a resignation, general sympathy for wanting to punch someone who pelts you with food and the famous Blair response “John is John” – all started by a simple egg.
9) Michael Mates’ engraved watch
One of the odder parts of the Polly Peck scandal in the early 90s (which is only now coming to court, with Asil Nadir’s return to Britain) was when Michael Mates, then Northern Ireland Minister, sent Nadir a watch engraved with the words “Don’t let the buggers get you down”. Somewhat embarassingly for Mates, who had been defending Nadir in public as well as sending such tokens in private, the businessman skipped bail and fled to Cyprus. Mates resigned.
10) John Hemming’s girlfriend’s cat
Before the scandal over Rebekah Brooks’ horse, Lib Dem MP John Hemming had provided the most recent animal-themed controversy. Hemming, a repeat adulterer who has been a little too open about his sex life for some reason, apparently annoyed even his hyper-tolerant wife so much so that she stole his mistress’s pet cat. The cat was reported to have been found, but there have since been allegations that the cat that was handed over is not the real cat after all. The mystery deepens…
There are plenty more Weird Political Scandal Props out there – which are your favourites?
The jury have just announced that Jim Devine is the latest politician to be found guilty of false accounting in his MPs’ expenses. Even before they had made up their minds about his criminal behaviour, though, it was clear that at bare minimum he was guilty of being a massive, massive hypocrite.
This Jim Devine who claimed yesterday he wanted “no special treatment” for having been an MP was the same Jim Devine who wasted public money and court time over the last year by first bringing a case and then an appeal to argue that he could not be prosecuted at all on the grounds of Parliamentary Privilege.
He was demanding special treatment for MPs to the absurd degree that they should be above the criminal law and untouchable even by the courts. That dodge didn’t work for Charles I when he pleaded the “divine right of kings”, and I’m delighted that it hasn’t worked for the divine right of Devine, either.
After spending years of my life campaign for - among other things – justice to be done on MPs’ expenses, it’s brilliant to see the first culprits appearing in court. After the brilliant news of David Chaytor’s prison sentence, this morning we had Eric Illsley pleading guilty to three counts.
Illsley is still a sitting MP, which is a huge stain on our democracy. The Sunlight Centre for Open Politics have launched a petition demanding his immediate resignation from Parliament. I’ve signed it, and I would urge you to do so too – it’s online here.
David Lammy MP seems to be of the opinion that he knows better than Oxbridge Dons who they should admit to University. Worse, the very fact that they disagree with him apparently means that they are institutionally racist, rather than simply better informed.
Who is this man in possession of such infinite wisdom that he is able to out-think some of the sharpest minds in Britain? For a short introduction, I’d recommend his appearance on Celebrity Mastermind, in which – among other things – he said that Henry VII was the son of Henry VIII. As they say on Twitter, DoubleFacePalm.
It gets particularly good at 4 minutes 20 seconds, on the general knowledge section…
One of the most fascinating (and enjoyable) aspects of my time at the TaxPayers’ Alliance was being right in the middle of the melee during the MPs’ expenses scandal. We were in the right, whilst the opponents of transparency (particularly Michael Martin) made blunder after blunder – and as a result we were privileged enough to have great fun and great success in a good cause.
The difficulty was always going to be in getting the right solution to the problem. I am utterly unsurprised that, now they are fully up and running, IPSA is under fire for its mishandling of the new expenses regime.
I, and the TPA more generally, was always uncomfortable with the idea of a quango designed to oversee MPs’ expenses. It is clear that the opacity and unaccountability of the quango structure tends to produce inefficiency and unresponsiveness – the very things which neither taxpayers nor democracy can afford from a Parliamentary expense system.
The ideal solution would have been much simpler – to audit expenses, publish the claims and receipts in full and then give the people the power of recall, allowing them to sack any MP whom they felt to be misbehaving.
Instead, we got IPSA. As an aside, it’s hilarious to see MPs now objecting to the organisation when it was they who introduced the law to set it up – and in doing so rode roughshod over Sir Christopher Kelly’s popular and largely effective inquiry into the expenses system that was running at the same time.
Once IPSA was set up, we had to do our best to work with it in order to make it the best it could be. To that end, I sat on their Implementation Advisory Panel along with various other transparency campaigners and IPSA’s Chief Executive, Andrew McDonald.
It was worth engaging to push them in the right direction, but it wasn’t a very satisfying process – there were various issues where the panel didn’t concur with us in proposing a sufficiently strict scheme to protect taxpayers and I felt from the outset that IPSA was missing big opportunities.
One issue where it did seem that Andrew McDonald got it, though, was on transparency. As one of the original architects of the Freedom of Information Act, he appreciated that secrecy around MPs’ claims had allowed reprobates to abuse the system in the first place and turned a scandal into a wildfire once the truth began to came out. Transparency, he regularly agreed in those Implementation Panel meetings, must be the fundamental foundation of any new expenses system.
It’s bitterly disappointing, then, to see that IPSA are now refusing to publish the actual receipts for MPs’ expenses. I don’t know what in particular happened to push Andrew McDonald off the right path (though I could hazard a few guesses), but this is a betrayal of taxpayers and British democracy. What I do know is that this will always be the way of quangos – designed to be unaccountable, they will almost always end up disregarding the actual will of the people.
I have lost count of the number of times I have said the following words in recent years, but it seems sadly necessary to repeat them again:
Without full openness, trust in Parliament will never be fully restored. Worse than that, secrecy will allow people to steal from us again in future.
John Bercow has been getting about in the North in his official role as Speaker of the Commons. Today in Parliament even went with him on a trip to Newcastle recently, where his mission was to persuade people that Parliament has reformed after the expenses scandal.
As the commentary went,
“We’re now at Newcastle station, about to board a taxi to St James’ Park, the home of Newcastle United…”
A taxi? The mucking in with real people campaign seems to have fallen at the first hurdle.
For those of you who haven’t had the good fortune to visit the Toon, Central Station is – erm – two stops on the Metro from St James’ Park. For those of a healthier disposition, Google estimates it to be 13 minutes walk away: