In any other profession, the three errant MPs would have been shown the door.
A few weeks ago, James Arbuthnot, after a long and almost pointless career, announced that he was standing down as a Conservative MP. Mr Arbuthnot, whose final position was as chairman of the backbench defence committee, gave an interview which seemed to suggest that he was now hoping to find jobs in the defence business. He could not resist one final, parting bleat: “The constant assumption that everybody in politics is in it for their own good, or is a crook, gets very debilitating after a bit.”
Mr Arbuthnot, whose expenses claim as revealed in the Telegraph included a bill for work on the family swimming pool, money he later repaid, was voicing a characteristic complaint among members of the political class. They are convinced that they are underpaid, under-appreciated and asked to uphold standards that would never be expected from an ordinary person.
This view needs challenging as urgently as ever. Five years after the expenses investigation revealed evidence of criminality, fraud, cheating and greed among a substantial minority of MPs, there is still a problem. I only have space here to look at three examples, one from each main political party, each exposing the way that Parliament tolerates disgraceful conduct that would not be allowed in any other walk of life.
The first involves Eric Joyce, Labour MP for Falkirk, who head-butted a Conservative MP and caused damage and mayhem in the Strangers Bar of the House of Commons. At a later date he wrestled two policemen to the ground during a karaoke night at the Sports and Social Bar. There was another episode in an airport, but that is a complicated story and need not detain us here.
The second concerns the Conservative Patrick Mercer, who was exposed by BBC Panorama and the Telegraph for accepting £4,000 (by a reporter pretending to represent the Fiji government) to ask parliamentary questions.
The third case is the most topical: the Lib Dem Mike Hancock, who has been accused of making a series of inappropriate advances towards a female constituent suffering from mental health problems.
According to an internal Lib Dem report carried out by a QC, and leaked to the Guido Fawkes website, the alleged victim provided “compelling prima facie evidence of serious and unwelcome sexual behaviour by Mr Hancock”.
There are grounds for sympathy for all three MPs. Colonel Mercer will always merit great respect as a soldier who carried out nine tours of duty in Northern Ireland, ending up as commanding officer of his regiment, the Sherwood Foresters. Eric Joyce, an admirable politician in his lucid moments, clearly suffers from a serious drink problem. There but for the grace of God go many of us. The allegations against Mr Hancock are very disturbing, but he denies them, and they have not been proved. I have been told that he is a conscientious local MP.
Nevertheless it is extraordinary that any of them remain in their jobs. MPs often demand more money and expenses with the insistence that they occupy a serious and responsible position in society comparable to senior civil servants, headmasters, GPs or high-ranking members of the Armed Forces.
Yet it is quite inconceivable that Joyce, Hancock or Mercer would have survived for a single second had they occupied a position in a serious profession. A drink-drive conviction is career death in the Army, let alone the kind of drunken brawl that is Mr Joyce’s speciality. A doctor with charges of the gravity being levelled against Mr Hancock, particularly when given credibility by an internal investigation, would surely not be allowed to carry on holding surgeries. Parliament, however, has very low standards.
Messrs Joyce, Hancock and Mercer carry on collecting their salaries of approximately £66,000 a year, not to mention expenses that, according to one estimate, will total, collectively, around £500,000 (enough to pay the annual salary for more than 20 nurses) by the time they finally quit at the next election. The evidence suggests that, in return, they don’t carry out much work.
Eric Joyce has voted 97 times in 489 divisions (19.8 per cent) since being stripped of the Labour whip just under two years ago. Patrick Mercer has voted on 24 occasions out of 184 divisions (13.6 per cent) since he resigned from the Tory Whip. Mike Hancock has much the best record of the three errant MPs, with a voting record of just under 45 per cent since he lost the Lib Dem whip in May 2013, but this is nevertheless a very low total for a backbencher.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that three constituencies have gone at least partially unrepresented in recent months, and Parliament is relaxed that this should remain the case. Portsmouth, where Hancock is MP, has cause to feel especially neglected. His neighbouring MP, the Conservative Penny Mordaunt, recently participated in an exhausting televised diving competition, though she claims she scheduled all her training out of parliamentary hours.
One would not expect that Speaker John Bercow, a notorious expense “flipper”, to be much bothered by this kind of conduct, and he hasn’t been. However, it is surprising that neither the Prime Minister nor either of the other two main party leaders tolerate the situation. Their supporters point to the fact that the three MPs have been stripped of the whip; but this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.
Before the 2010 election, the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour each pledged that they would legislate to allow voters the power of “recall”, thus giving ordinary people the chance to force a by-election. The proposal was so uncontroversial that it slipped easily into the Coalition Agreement: “We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing the voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrong-doing.”
The Coalition government finally published a Bill in draft form last December, but it comes too late and – worst of all – puts a parliamentary committee in charge. As the Tory dissident Zac Goldsmith told the Guardian last week: Recall it is “about empowering voters not parliamentary committees. The Government’s proposals are the opposite of what was intended and promised.”
Why have David Cameron and Nick Clegg broken their promise? It is impertinent to speculate about motive, but my guess is that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are terrified of a by-election. Hancock’s Portsmouth South constituency and Patrick Mercer’s Newark are classically vulnerable to the Ukip electoral insurgency.
Meanwhile, up in Falkirk Ed Miliband and Labour have serious problems of their own. With Labour discredited, the Scottish National Party could easily win. So all three party machines seem to have concluded that it is better to allow Hancock, Joyce and Mercer to wander round Parliament like a foul smell than to allow voters their say.
It is a decision that shows the habitual contempt in which the British political class holds voters. By an interesting paradox, that contempt is the reason for the rise of Ukip in the first place. To answer James Arbuthnot’s complaint, it is no wonder that so many people believe that “everybody in politics is in it for their own good, or is a crook”.
Hat tip: Peter Oborne at The Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10604812/Joyce-Hancock-and-Mercer-are-perfect-examples-of-Parliaments-low-standards.html