A Political Class is Blown Away:
by Sean Gabb
My British readers will need no reminding of what has happened during the past few weeks. However, most of my readers are not British, and many will be coming on this article several years into the future. So I will begin by saying that The Daily Telegraph has “acquired” a disk that contained about a million pages of expenses receipts put in by Members of the House of Commons, and has been publishing its findings day after day. Many of the receipts show a scandalous indifference to the niceties of honesty and proportion. There has been one resignation from the Cabinet so far. Several other Ministers are at least tainted, and may not survive much longer even in Gordon Brown’s apology for a Government. Dozens of letter political careers have been blighted. The Police have now been called in, and we are waiting to see who will be charged and with what.
It is very funny to watch these creatures squirming – rather like bugs in the sunlight when the stone under which they were sheltering is pulled over. The general defence is either to blame accounting carelessness. Otherwise, when this defence cannot reasonably be made, they blame “the system” that never stopped them from slipping their hands into the till. That the sums involved have not usually been that great makes it all the funnier. These people have, since 1997, burned their way through about two trillion pounds of our money. Most of this has been used to buy Labour votes or to oppress us – often for both at the same time. If they are now on the brink of political oblivion because of a few thousand pounds here and there spent on tampons and television sets, it is because these are things that we can comprehend. A trillion begins with one digit and is followed by twelve zeros. Claiming back £65 for a summons for non-payment of council tax is much easier to imagine.
Various further questions arise from the scandal. The first and most obvious is how anyone could be so careless in his accounting – especially when he has spent decades advertising his peculiar fitness to govern this country. Then it may be asked how so many politicians can afford to write out repayment cheques for what the rest of us might think substantial sums of money. I am not poor, but would have to wait a while before signing a cheque for £20,000. Have these people additional sources of gain that have not so far been revealed? But the question I want to ask today is why has The Daily Telegraph seen fit to expose all this dirt?
One answer is that this is the sort of thing the media of a free country exists to do. But this is not a satisfactory answer. I have been watching the British media at work for about thirty years now, and I can say that – weather reports and cricket scores aside – nothing is published in the way of news that does not serve some agenda of the great and powerful. These expense claims show at worst rather petty corruption. There are much larger scandals that are not covered by the mainstream media – and certainly not by The Daily Telegraph. There is, for example, the former police chief who used his position to stop his mistress from being blackmailed. There is a senior judge who was arrested for exposing himself to little girls in a bus shelter. There is the whole background to the Dunblane massacre in 1996. There is much else that has never found its way into the newspapers. So why this?
Another possible answer is that The Daily Telegraph is supposed to be a Conservative newspaper, and that it should, therefore, do whatever it can to hasten the end of this Labour Government. However, it has done very little against either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Most of the dirt published on this Government has been in The Daily Mail or The Independent. In any event, if the worst abuses have been by Labour politicians, these expenses claims have damaged politicians in all the main parties. Using them for party political purposes is much like using atom bombs to win a trench battle.
No – I believe that this wind that will blow away much of our political class was produced for – if not by – Boris Johnson. He is not currently in the House of Commons, but is Mayor of London. He has obvious ambitions to be at least the next but one Conservative Prime Minister. He is, so far as I can tell, the only person of significance likely to benefit from this expenses scandal. He benefits so far as he is untouched by it, and so far as many of those who do or might stand in his way will be discredited.
I have no direct evidence of this claim. But I can supply what I regard as reasonable inferences from past behaviour that stand beside estimates of present interest.
To begin with past behaviour, it may be recalled that, around the turn of the century, I ran the Candidlist Project. This provided information about the stated or likely views of Conservative politicians about the European Union. It was a very feeble thing compared with what has since been achieved by Guido Fawkes – or even by The Daily Telegraph. But it scared the life out of several hundred normally shameless politicians, and destroyed about a dozen careers. I may have unseated one Member of Parliament. During the approach to the 2001 General Election, I put the Candidlist Questions to Boris Johnson, who was at the time the Conservative candidate for Henley and a senior journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Editor of The Spectator. At first, he refused to answer my questions. Then he gave some very unsatisfactory answers. I made great fun of him, and this was picked up by several newspapers.
What I did next was to start pressuring the directors of companies that were funding a campaign for Britain to join the Euro. This pressure included a threat to publish the home addresses of directors who refused to stop funding what I regarded at the time as treasonable propaganda. Almost at once, I found myself on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, for two days running accused of what would nowadays be classed as terrorism. The journalist concerned managed to claim that publishing the home addresses of people like Fred Goodwin was tantamount to putting dynamite through their letterboxes. I was outraged by the claims, and it took me several days to appreciate the funny side of things. Back then, though, this was still a free country, and everyone else had a good laugh at me and then forgot the matter. It is unlikely that the Police even read the claims, let alone considered how many dozen officers they could fit through my front door before shooting me.
Now, it might have been some alarmed company director who had me done over. More likely, it was Boris Johnson, calling on his friends to punish me for what I had done to him. This was his newspaper. He has always had a reputation for bearing grudges and for a ruthless viciousness in advancing his own interests. If so, it may be relevant that the journalist who defamed me in 2001 was Benedict Brogan – and that it is Benedict Brogan who is now supervising the publication of the Commons expense claims. It may also be relevant that no claim submitted by Mr Johnson while he was in Parliament has yet been published or commented on. Perhaps Mr Johnson ran his finances as a Member of Parliament with more attention to the proprieties than he did his private life. We may one day learn the truth.
As for present interest, I have already explained this. At the beginning of the present month, Mr Johnson was an important elected officer. But he was out of Parliament, and had dropped out of competition with a leadership that growing in confidence with every downward step of the Brown Government. He is now the one leading Conservative who has not been tainted by allegations of fraud or allegations of having tolerated the frauds of others. It still looks as if the Conservatives will win the next election – even they cannot managed the incompetence and cowardice now needed to save Labour. And it looks as if David Cameron will be the next Conservative Prime Minister. But Boris Johnson has grown in public stature during the past fortnight, and he may be able, after the next election, to come forward with claims to preferment that cannot be denied.
I have no reason for not wanting Mr Johnson to succeed in politics. He is no worse than anyone else, and has given the occasional sign of being better. He was beastly to me a long time ago, and has almost certainly been beastlier to other people who have got in his way. I say what I have said because I believe it to be true, and because, if it is true, I might pick up some credit for having said it first.
NB—Sean Gabb’s book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free from http://tinyurl.com/34e2o3