Monday, 30 March 2009

Shameless

Remember Derek Conway? He got into a spot of trouble early last year for paying his sons as "researchers" while they were actually studying at university. Nothing was ever "proved", but he was forced to repay the money and was thrown out of the parliamentary Conservative party. He lasted little more than a day following the revelation of his expenses scam. As I explained at the time, his fate was sealed when thousands of grassroots conservatives emailed Tory HQ, left comments at Conservative Home, blogged, rang in, expressed their anger. And David Cameron, to his credit, responded with speed. He realised how bad it looked. He knew how the perception of sleaze had soured the fag end of the Major years, how vital it was that the Conservative party should not merely be, but appear to be, "whiter than white". That lesson has long since been forgotten by the Labour party - though, thinking back to such early harbingers as the Bernie Ecclestone affair, various assorted Mandelson and Vaz arrangements, and the Blairs' flat-hunting exploits in Bristol, it might validly be wondered if it had ever really been learned.

The amounts claimed on behalf of the Conway boys, while far from negligible, were far less than the £150,304 Jacqui Smith has claimed for running and improving her family home - which a cosy flat-share arrangement with her sister enabled her to put down as a "second home", despite the fact that it was the only one she had. This may have been "within the rules" - but only because, as I mentioned in the context of another repulsive New Labour sleazeball, Tony McNulty, the rules were designed with honest people in mind, who might be trusted not to use taxpayers' money for their own corrupt enrichment. Most of the talk is of the porn watched - we are assured - by her husband (and taxpayer-funded employee) Richard Timney on his own. No surprises there. It may have represented a paltry £10 out of the total sum, less than a fiftieth of the £550 she claimed for a fancy sink, a hundredth of the cost of her fireplace. But we Brits like sniggering about anything sexual, and the thought of our puritanical, anti-porn, home secretary signing off her husband's dirty movies on expenses is irresistible. If Smith is forced out of office, it will have been the porn wot won it.

There's some confusion about which porn films Mr Timney actually splashed our money on. The Telegraph thinks that one of them may have been "Raw Meat 3", which pay-per-wank channel Television X was showing on one of the days in question. That, however, turns out to be gay porn. Possible, I suppose: in her interview with his wife last week the Telegraph's Rosa Prince describes our Jac as "a very macho home secretary". (As to the obvious question: why didn't he get his porn free on the internet like everyone else, there's an obvious answer: he probably did - we were also paying for the couple's broadband account, remember.) Then there were the other films: two showings of Oceans Thirteen at £3.50 a throw. Truly bizarre. Ocean's Thirteen is so dire it makes the disappointing Ocean's Twelve look like The Italian Job. Watching it once may be regarded as a misfortune; watching it twice looks like desperation.

"Jacqui Smith is now suffering from the triple whammy - sympathy, ridicule and outrage - which every politician fears", writes Nick Robinson. Ridicule and outrage, certainly, but I doubt many people have any sympathy for her. But of course he's not referring to the voters who pay her expenses claims:


To many MPs, she's a likeable working mum who didn't expect to be elected in '97; whose husband agreed to sacrifice his career to make hers possible; who works such long hours that she spends more days away from her family than with it and who knows that she's on course to lose her very marginal seat and thus, her job, income and allowances, at the next election.

As Oscar said of Little Nell's death scene, one would need a heart of stone.



It's the small details that are really telling. Leave aside, for a moment, the porn. Here's someone so keen to screw every available penny out of the taxpayer that she even claimed 88 pence for a bathplug. Someone who apparently believes that the £142 thousand salary she gets from the public purse to do her job of (as she likes to put it) "keeping the country safe from terrorism" won't stretch an extra £15 to have a cooker plugged in.

Totally shameless. But then shamelessness is one of the prerequisites for a modern politician. It is the flip side of having a thick skin which they need to survive the rough and tumble of debate, the backstabbing by and of colleagues, the inevitable close scrutiny of every move and every word. A politician must be able to filter out the "noise" and focus on the job in hand. But in developing such a carapace they are is bound to lose sensitivity. Think of Jacqui Smith, if you like, living inside a giant extra-extra heavy duty condom. It certainly protects her from infection - but she can scarcely feel a thing.

There's a connection, surely, between her notorious "toughness" as Home Secretary, the imperviousness to reasoned argument that she seems to regard as a virtue, and the shamelessness that enables her to grit her teeth and persevere in her job even while she has become the butt of a national joke. Nay, international. In the Telegraph interview, Jackboots showed her impatience with people who cared about her relentless erosion of basic civil liberties:

I get exasperated about people who are in reasonably comfortable positions in terms of their personal safety, who probably aren't completely clear about the threats, and who take an approach to rights which puts the right of privacy above a pretty fundamental right for us to be safe.


She revealed a similar impatience with those ill-motivated people who had the temerity to question her expenses claims:

What's hard is people feeling able to make comments that are wrong about the way in which you live your life. I believe I have stuck by the spirit and the letter of the law and the rules.

I have had to talk because of this about the decision that I've made as a working mum and Home Secretary which basically involved me saying I've got to separate my main home from the home where my kids live. People have found that difficult to understand. People have thought that the unusual living arrangements must mean there's something dodgy.


It's not the living arrangements that are dodgy, Jacqui, it's the fact you expect taxpayers to fund them.

Prince began her remarkably sympathetic interview by claiming that there had been a "neat symmetry" about Smith's week, featuring as it did both the launch of the Contest 2 counterterrorism strategy and the embarrassing questions raised by the case of Binyam Mohamed, who claimed to have been tortured with the acquiescence of British agents. There's certainly a neat symmetry about her response to both the political and the personal controversies in which she finds herself enmeshed. First:

While she can't go into Mr Mohamed's case, Miss Smith is said to remain "confident" that the British security services have not been involved in torture during the War on Terror.


And a few paragraphs later:

While she cannot go into details because of an ongoing investigation by the Parliamentary watchdog...She is clear that she will be fully exonerated.


She should heed the words of her equally adorable colleague Harriet Harman, who thought Fred Goodwin's pension would be judged by the "court of public opinion". As Hattie so appositely said, "It is not acceptable, and so it will not be accepted."

It is, of course, richly ironic that a minister who has done so much to impose surveillance on the rest of the population should find her own private affairs exposed in such embarrassing detail, and that a politician who has introduced and is planning to introduce legislation cracking down on various manifestations of commercial sex should be brought down by her husband's desire to watch cable porn. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, eh Jacqui? But irony - at root, a conflict between appearance and reality - is what always gets them in the end. The "prudent" chancellor who bankrupts the economy as prime minister, the anti-prostitution governor caught spending thousands of dollars on hookers, the war-loving premier who now wants us all to do God.

Politicians, as a rule, don't do irony. But irony does them.

3 comments:

quisquose said...

I have to admit that it's now got to a stage of such distrust that if somebody came asking for my vote, promising to do nothing but hand over 100% of his MPs salary to the local children's hospital, then he'd get my vote.

Letters From A Tory said...

Your point about the salary has been missed out of a lot of discussion.

For example, I pointed out on my blog this morning that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling use thousands of pounds of taxpayers money to send their family to and from Scotland every year instead of paying for it themselves. The fact that they get free accommodation in Downing Street in addition to a healthy salary makes this even worse.

Edwin Moore said...

'No surprises there.'

Heresiarch, that is ungallant, but oh it must be true.

Perhaps Mr Conway could come back to life and use new technology to put his views forward - on Conway Twitter. . .