The last political week holds little cheer for politicians of any stripe. It is as if the recess never happened – courtesy of Sir Thomas Legg, the man placed in charge of investigating MPs’ expenses claims by Gordon Brown, the story is still one of pork-barrelling piggies. It isn’t popular to argue thus, but Legg has clearly gone beyond the realms of his original brief, safe in the knowledge that it would be politically impossible to call him on it: his retrospective limits are placed on MPs despite what he himself admits was the total absence of any such laws at the actual time the claims were made. On the other hand, he lacks total fearlessness: by settling on cleaning and gardening as his retrospective targets, he avoids the far thornier – and potentially more criminal – second home claims, flipping and all.
This mix of brazeness and timidity has at least secured more headlines in a vein which cannot help any of the parties. However much damage it will do across the board, though, it will do most to Labour – and the party’s backbench MPs are said to be furious with Gordon and, in common with their colleagues across not the aisles, not a little despondent. The perennial gadfly Frank Field is the first of these to challenge Legg in public, but more cannot be far behind. Cameron, on the other hand, runs a tighter ship – even diehard Labour MP Diane Abbot admitted on last Thursday’s This Week that Brown simply doesn’t command the same unity on his benches. It’s not that Labour MPs, and indeed any of the others complaining about Legg’s report, are wrong. It’s that, politically, it is simply more sensible (as Labour figures as diverse as Johns Hutton and Mann have argued) to put up and shut up. Cameron has understood this. Brown has, too – he paid back his hefty £12,000 (Legg’s crusade against cleaning costs hit the PM harder than almost anyone else) immediately. But he cannot command his fractious party to do the same as Cameron can.
All of which means that the last political week leaves Labour in a worse position than the other parties. None will emerge from this particular business looking rosy, but more strategically important is what the week shows us about the ability of particularly the two biggest parties to frame and enforce a narrative. Matthew d’Ancona is right to point out that public opinion must in this case be served, however unfair it may be. It is not that the public forgive any of the parties, or that they are convinced by Cameron’s opportunism; but Brown’s inability to shepherd his mob in the right direction is sign enough that the Tory leader will continue to win by default. Cameron and Osborne have got where they are in the polls by parroting the same simple arguments over and over again, until they are sick of them. This requires discipline. Does Labour have any left? The last week, in which some of its members muttered about suing their own party, suggests not.