Draining the moat and other MP expenses
Political scandals usually roll out in a rather predictable fashion. A government gets fat and spoiled after years in power. Its members dip their hands ever deeper into the cookie jar of public finances.
Eventually, allegations of abuse and misspending are exposed and the opposition pounces, points an accusing finger at a tired, bloated regime while promising things will be different once it comes to power.
But the scandal that has been unfolding in Britain all this week over MPs' expense accounts has followed a different script and may well veer into uncharted terrain.
This one has engulfed both the government and — one after the other — the two main opposition parties. It is even threatening to take down the Speaker of the Commons who has been heavily criticized for his handling of the public's complaints.
The tale began when The Daily Telegraph newspaper published detailed inventories of some of the items and services that MPs of every stripe have claimed as part of their annual housing allowance over the past few years.
One of several expenses British MPs are allotted, the "second home" allowance is currently worth up to $42,000 a year for those with constituencies outside greater London.
The expenses claimed ranged from the trite — biscuits, a trouser press and, in one case, a box of sanitary napkins — to the sublime. One Conservative MP reportedly charged taxpayers to repair a pipe under the private tennis court at his home, while another is alleged to have expensed the cleaning of the family moat.
British taxpayers were understandably shocked to discover that their elected representatives were routinely expensing claims for gardening services, swimming pool maintenance, interior decorators and flat-cleaning along with chits for chandeliers, garden and bedroom furniture, wooden flooring, new doors, kitchen cabinets and, in at least one case, a $4,000 widescreen plasma TV.
Worse, according to the Telegraph, some MPs appeared to be "flipping" the designation of their so-called second homes in order, it seems, to claim expenses on more than one property or perhaps avoid paying taxes.
At a time when Britain is mired in recession and many people are worried about losing their jobs and their homes, the thought of politicians living large at public expense has turned voters' stomachs.
Earlier this week, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who, it was revealed, claimed almost $12,000 in the past two years for the weekly cleaning of a London flat he doesn't live in, performed a public grovel on behalf of the entire political class.
"I would like to apologize on behalf of politicians — on behalf of all parties — for what has happened," he said.
Brown is also talking of curtailing other MP allowances and turning their administration over to an independent third-party to oversee. But that may not be enough.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, beat Brown to the punch, issuing his own apology the day before the prime minister and seemed to raise the ante.
"We have to start by saying, 'Look, this system that we had, that we used, that we operated, that we took part in, it was wrong and we're sorry about it,'" said Cameron, adding that it isn't good enough to say MPs were just following the rules.
Cameron started the ball rolling by pledging that he will repay the approximately $1,500 he claimed for home repairs and by promising that any of his MPs who submitted questionable claims would repay them as well or be sacked.
Since then, at least 20 MPs from the three leading parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, have vowed to reimburse Parliament for questionable expenses, which now total approximately $178,000, according to the Telegraph.
Beyond damage control
The biggest single repayer so far is Health Minister Phil Hope, who faces a firestorm in his home riding and is promising to reimburse the treasury for $73,000 in allowance claims. Also high on the list is Labour MP Margaret Moran who is promising to pay back nearly $40,000 for treating dry rot on her property in Southampton.
Whether the apologies and acts of contrition are enough to fix the damage remains to be seen, of course.
Politicians here are seldom truly popular. But this story has clearly left an impression that they are all at the trough.
"I'm afraid in many ways it just confirms what many people think of politicians already," says Paul Kelly of the London School of Economics. "That they're all basically crooks."
Kelly points out that none of Britain's mainstream political parties comes out of this looking good.
But his fear is that with elections coming up for local city councils as well as for the European parliament, voters will be so turned off by the mainstream candidates that they won't turn up to cast a ballot, which would help fringe elements like the right-wing British National Party.
A scandal that hasn't followed a predictable path may yet have very unpredictable results.