SKETCH: The Committee of Double Standards

The trouble with calling it a trough is that you think it’s full of swill.

This one’s full of champagne truffles.

John Mann had his Urgent Question just before lunch.

He is the outsider’s outsider, widely disliked by his peers, a conspirator, a trouble-maker, a Savonarola. He talks to you out of the side of his mouth glancing over his shoulder, as though you were in a prison slops queue.

Among Parliament’s hothouse bonsais, he looks like something that grew out of the side of a bridge.

Who else might have asked for this Urgent Question? No one else wants it brought up. They find it a “screaming nightmare”. It’s hard to over-estimate the effect it’s had on MPs. Which makes it all the more surprising when another one, yet another one comes out with yet another scam.

Here we are again, with a fat sock of cash, an untalented, isolated minister, and a closing of a class round a colleague. It’s one of the most enjoyable opportunities for media indignation in years.

Mann wanted the tape of the Standards committee’s deliberations made public. He told the House that the time for self-regulation was over, and urged the Leader of House to end it immediately.

Andrew Lansley is a proper Tory. So far from doing anything immediately he has learnt the error of doing anything at all.

He said he thought things were going pretty well. The new independent system was working as it should. This was “a legacy case”. How many more legacy cases were there out there, he was asked?

“The answer may be not none,” he said, carefully.

What’s the answer, whose fault is it? Angela Eagle blamed Tory partisanship. Chris Bryant thought the House of Lords needed investigating. Gerald Howarth brilliantly blamed “a complete and abject failure of the media.”

A generally-accepted view was that journalists hadn’t read the report. True in my case, and probably in yours. Who wants to get caught up in the coils of the committee, their oily arguments and talented sophistries? You’d end up invading Iraq.

No, the facts are – let’s not get bogged down. She was told to repay a hefty sum, she repaid a tenth of it and all her political-class pals acquiesced. That’s what the doorsteps say.

How do MPs propose to make things better?

An Opposition majority on the Standards committee, as Angela Eagle wanted? That suggests an even lower standard of public life than we have. That it’s all party political. Actually, it might be. A Labour committee let Geoffrey Robinson off, even though Tom Bower published a photocopy of his invoice to Maxwell for £200,000 (stamped PAID). Geoffrey said he couldn’t locate the cheque, the Labour committee understood.

Kevin Barron, the dusty nonentity who chairs Standards issued a serpentine series of remarks rebuking, or at least contradicting Angela Eagle, his shadow Leader of the House. The committee was impartial, non-partisan, of the highest integrity. He urged us to read closely and fully understand the report.

All right, all RIGHT!

I followed Peter Bottomley’s recommendation and started with paragraph 28. “Nonetheless,” it says, “we consider that Mrs Miller’s designation was reasonable in the light of the guidance at the time. You can’t blame her, which of us would have done differently for £50,000?”

I may have nodded off while reading it.

What are the options?

Independent regulation? That’s a rotten idea. The quango-impulse has already created a non-accountable state. Think how little we could pelt the unelected bureaucrats with our carefully-formulated ordure?

Lansley’s more subtle point was that an independent regulator wouldn’t be covered by Privilege and wouldn’t therefore be able to investigate so fully or so easily.

Recall? This will almost certainly create more problems than it solves, so it is my private recommendation.

The ultimate answer is more virtue.

Where does more virtue come from? From example rather than admonition. But with a narcissistic game show host setting the standard, we can’t be too hopeful, not in the medium-term.



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