Thursday’s edition of Question Time was compelling. The BBC’s audiences have for some years grown more combative, but never have they been quite so disgusted by the panel before them: members of the public heckled and jeered, talked over the politicians and shouted angrily that MPs were not better than the people or above the law. The parties had fielded respected figures who have little career ahead of them – Margaret Beckett, Sir Menzies Campbell and Theresa May. What the show would have been like had it been less venerable figures in the chairs does not bear thinking about.
Such is the effect of what is now nine straight days of the Telegraph’s expenses investigation. Ben Brogan, the paper’s assistant editor, was also on the Question Time panel – and received cheers even before he spoke. David Dimbleby alone remained scepitcal about Brogan’s claims that the Telegraph was courageous and crusading; the audience clearly thought they knew who the white knight was. Yet, when asked how many MPs were not on the take (and their is a story in today’s paper about just that issue), Brogan refused to venture a guess – the million documents the Telepgraph has were still being scrutinised, he said, and it was impossible to say.
It’s hard to believe, though, that if there was evidence that the majority of MPs were cheats on the scale of those already exposed by Brogan’s paper, that he would not have compromised his sources and said so. Of course, the assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph wants the Daily Telegraph to continue to sell as many copies as possible, and the carrot thus remains dangled. Alas, this sort of insinuation has deeply damaging effects upon our political process. The raft of resignations and sackings – Andrew Mackay on the Tory side and Elliot Morley and Shahid Malik (the first ministerial casuality) on Labour’s – shows that the political class is beginning to understand that this damage must be controlled. But the strength of the rage on show on Question Time and on internet message boards will require yet more self-flagellation before it is sated. Widespread deselection is now surely not that unlikely a solution.
David Chaytor, the second Labour MP after Morley to be revealed to be claiming for a mortgage that did not exist, has this morning been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party – the responses are getting quicker, but no less reactive. David Cameron looked commanding and, woe betide us, Prime Ministerial when he emerged on the very first day of accusations against Tory MPs, and pledged pay-backs and zero tolerance. Responses need to be worth more than expected at this point; with the police setting up a panel to investigate the accusations, politicians need to be ahead of the curve permanently. Gordon Brown is yet again finding himself tossed around by events – a week has gone by and he still shows no sign of being in control. The lobby pack remain rampant – on Thursday night’s This Week, Quentin Letts just came out and called the Speaker an ‘idiot’ on national television. This sort of atmosphere is poisonous for every politician, most of all their leaders. Widespread and devastating fall-out from these allegations cannot be prevented – but its effects can be limited.
In so doing, though, the chance that we will find the real solution to this mess – to increase MPs’ salaries, eliminating expenses as a sort of unofficial stipend-by-right – is now nil. Damage control is the order of the day – and to show sufficient regret, politicians may have to inflict extra damage upon themselves and their colleagues. Who’s shirt, we ask, is hairier?