Parliament's day of decision
Published in: Daily Mail
So is today the day when Parliament is to be saved? Don't put money on it.
As the House of Commons chooses a new Speaker in the most important election of the post's 600-year history, there are still precious few signs that, even after everything that's happened, MPs really grasp how fundamentally the political landscape has changed.
Or to put it another way, they think that after a few token (and lowly) heads have rolled and a few superficial reforms have been rushed into place, they can carry on stitching-up and 'redacting' as normal.
Consider. A new Speaker is necessary because of the astonishing revelations of endemic and institutionalised dishonesty over Parliamentary expenses.
The previous Speaker, Michael Martin, was forced out because not only was he himself tainted by the scandal, but he was also seen as blocking all attempts to clean up Parliament.
The Speaker's historic role as custodian of Parliament's integrity is central. It is therefore absolutely essential that MPs elect a replacement who is fit in every respect to undertake the Herculean task of restoring that integrity, and with it the trust of the people.
But look at the candidates to succeed the disgraced Speaker Martin. The front-runner, Margaret Beckett, claimed for almost £11,000 in gardening expenses, including £1,380 for plants.
Last month, she said that a £600 claim for plants for hanging baskets, tubs and planters in 2005, which was rejected by the Commons Fees Office, had been 'a mistake' - even though she had made three similar claims between 2001 and 2003.
Mrs Beckett is the favourite for the job only because the shine has come off the previous front-runner, the Conservative MP John Bercow -- who twice charged taxpayers for the cost of hiring an accountant to complete his tax return, a breathtakingly brazen rip-off made even more disgraceful since MPs pay no tax on their expenses.
We also learn that Sir Alan Beith, the sole Liberal Democrat candidate, billed taxpayers for his Westminster-based secretary to spend a month in his constituency during the 2005 General Election campaign -- an improper muddling of public service and party politics.
Another Tory candidate, Sir Patrick Cormack, claimed expenses for household bills on both his main and second homes.
And Labour candidate Parmjit Dhanda over-claimed on his second home allowance on at least two occasions, charging taxpayers more for mortgage interest than he was charged by his bank.
Meanwhile, the 'bicycling baronet' Sir George Young, who is chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, may not have any expenses fiddles to his name -- but he hardly stands out as a reformer, since he refused to insist that MPs' expenses details should not be blacked out in the farcically 'redacted' accounts published last week.
As for John Bercow, his candidacy is a prime example of Westminster's unparalleled cynicism, since most of his backing comes from Labour MPs whose sole purpose in electing him is to discomfit his fellow Tories who loathe the sight of him.
So much for taking the Speakership seriously. Corruption, yah-boo political games and sordid stitch-ups -- aren't these the very things that have so terminally alienated the public from British political life?
Yet this unsavoury circus is supposed to be all about restoring Parliament's reputation. Says it all, really, doesn't it?
The apparently never-ending revelations have made people disgusted not just with individual MPs, but with Parliament itself.
After all, as MPs have unceasingly told us, they virtually had a gun put to their heads by the Fees Office to claim for moats and Mars Bars on the grounds that such claims were an accepted way of bumping up everyone's pay.
The scandal has firmly cemented in the public mind the already lethal impression that MPs live on another planet from the rest of us and have scant concern or respect for the people they represent.
So whoever is elected Speaker today faces a formidable task in repairing this damage.
Their first task is to introduce a totally transparent expenses system based solely on the need to prevent MPs from being out of pocket in the service of their constituents.
So far, so obvious. But the equally obvious problem needing urgent attention, that MPs are more generally held in such low regard, has provoked all kinds of extremely silly suggestions as various agendas come tumbling out of the closet.
These include a written constitution and electing the House of Lords, or John Bercow's proposal that MPs should be paid £100,000 a year.
As a reward for bad behaviour and thus hammering the last nail into Parliament's coffin, this last suggestion could hardly be bettered. And reforming the constitution is to miss the point by a mile. It's not the constitutional structure that's inadequate, but the people who operate it.
This low behaviour has a great deal to do with the callowness and low quality of so many MPs. And in large measure, that's because they have never in their lives done anything other than politics.
They've never done a real job, but so often have gone straight from university into working as a researcher for an MP or think-tank and then been selected for a parliamentary seat. How then can they relate to the lives of ordinary people when they have themselves never lived an ordinary life?
And how can they appreciate the value of money, either when it comes to dishing out vast sums to a host of different causes or lining their own pockets?
It would improve the competence and standing of MPs overnight if there was a requirement to have held down a job outside politics for a period of time before they could be elected.
Much of the problem derives from the fact MPs view representing their constituents as a job and expect to be paid accordingly. But it is not. It is a public service.
Being career politicians also makes them so dependent on promotion they are prepared to do anything the party whips want and will never rock the boat.
But what we need above all are independent-minded MPs who will stand up for the people against the party machine. That means they should have jobs outside Parliament, which will give them independence, experience and a broader outlook.
And that means that rather than being paid a higher MPs' salary, they should be paid less. After all, what are we paying them for?
One of the reasons we are in such a mess is that the state has far too much power over our lives. We need less government, resulting in less interference. And that would mean fewer parliamentary bills and less time MPs need to spend in Parliament.
So who should be the new Speaker? My choice would be Ann Widdecombe. She is squeaky-clean -- the lame suggestion that she should not have claimed a newspaper cuttings service on expenses, which she insists was necessary to do her job properly, is absurd.
The great advantage she has over all the other candidates is that she is widely admired by the public -- including her political opponents -- for her bloody-minded independence, integrity and courage.
Aren't those the characteristics we expect from Parliament?
She would have no truck with overambitious reforms, but would just crack heads and clean up. In the year she would be in the post, she would probably get more done than all the other candidates put together.
If anyone can save Parliament from itself, surely she can. This is Ann Widdecombe's moment. Whether Parliament actually wants to be saved is another matter.