Some years ago, I wrote a spoof news story about a professor of moral calculus discovering that two wrongs do in fact make a right. This finding has clearly informed Sir Thomas Legg’s decision to invent some precise numerical rules on MPs’ expenses and to apply them retrospectively.
A section of Legg’s explanation is headed: “The need to determine what the rules were”. By ‘determine’, he means stipulate as much as discover.
He says that, when it comes to secondary (i.e. non-accommodation) expenses, “some limits must be regarded as having been in place to prevent disproportionate and unnecessary expenditure from the public purse”. This decree assumes that, by definition, the previously existing rules must in fact have contained specific limits on certain types of spending, even though such numbers were never in any way stated.
Given this, Legg has had “to establish the limits which must be taken… to have been in place at the time”. By ‘establish’ he means conduct some unspecified procedure and then state that second-home cleaning costs of up to £2,000 a year and gardening costs of up to £1,000 a year were fine, but no more.
Following this moment of clarity, he has been able to tell lots of MPs that they did in fact claim more than his imaginary rules allowed and should pay it back. They, having screwed us over, are now screwed over in turn, and the moral balance of the universe is restored.
Back in the real world, it’s obvious that the expenses rules (behind which many idiot MPs had tried to hide) were shoddily drafted, arrogantly manipulated and indulgently applied. But it just adds to the fiasco for Legg to come along and confabulate what he reckons the rules probably ought to have been if only they’d been different.
The party leaders, fearful of a lynch mob, have rushed to insist that their MPs pay back these arbitrary sums in the desperate hope of buying a couple of points on their poll ratings.
I have no sympathy for the well-off MPs who have been milking the system “within the rules”, but this whole mess does tell us something about our political culture: standards of due process will be torn to shreds when it comes to deeply unpopular people. If politicians see the public and the media angrily demanding severe punishment for such a group, then they will do whatever it takes to make those people suffer.
In this case, they themselves are the bogeymen. So how would they treat poorer, weaker groups with no political clout? (Ask an asylum seeker...)
This isn’t justice; it’s vengeance. And hardly anybody seems to care about the difference.