Missed BBC QT? Then catch up now with the Eric Pickles' slow-mo car crash

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2009

I didn’t imagine that last night’s BBC1 Question Time would be an especially memorable one – but my expectations were confounded by the efforts of Tory chairman Eric Pickles to dig himself into a deep, deep hole on MPs’ expenses. And then to keep on digging and digging.

Even if QT normally drives you round the bend, I do urge you to watch the three minute segment on the BBC website HERE. (Public appeal: can someone please, please, please put up this clip on YouTube for the benefit of posterity?)

Not since Welsh First Minister Rhoddri Morgan made a complete arse of himself by refusing to say whether he supported or not the Iraq war (on the bizarre grounds that he wasn’t an MP at the time of the invasion so had no rights to a view), has a senior politician died quite such a slow, lingering death in front of an audience of millions.

Eric Pickles represents the constituency of Brentwood and Ongar, 37 20 miles from Westminster, and therefore has a home in his constituency, and a second home – which we taxpayers are funding – near Westminster. Some will think that fair enough; it’s probably about an hour’s commute by train.

But Eric’s justification was risible: he needs a second home, he told us, because “the House of Commons runs like clockwork”, and he simply can’t be late; indeed, he proudly told us, he frequently has to be in Parliament by 9.30 am. Imagine that! As David Dimbleby sarcastically interjected, to huge applause, “Like a job?”

But I do everything within the rules, squealed Eric. An audience member, who for once was both sane and perceptive, exposed the Tory party chairman’s hypocrisy by asking if Eric thought Sir Fred Goodwin should hand back his pension: “Of course,” said populist Eric. But didn’t Sir Fred also play within the rules?, asked his interrogator: what’s the difference? Camera cruelly cuts to visibly speechless Mr Pickles.

It was at this point, perhaps, that Eric realised quite how much he’d lived down to his surname, and that he really couldn’t extricate himself: “I’m never going to satisfy you folks,” he harrumphed, “because I’m an MP and therefore guilty in your eyes.” Well dug, Eric.

It is, of course, easy to mock. In fact, all Eric Pickles was treating us to were his unvarnished views; and they’re not just his views; they’re shared by substantial numbers of his fellow Tory and Labour MPs, who have consistently refused to back Lib Dem attempts to tighten up the rules, and bring Parliament into the current millennium.

Perhaps last night’s humiliation will force Eric to think again, to recognise that the days of MPs voting themselves expenses that few others in the public sector could ever justify to their bosses are now over. It may do. More likely, I suspect, is that he’ll keep his trap shut from now on, and hope the whole thing just blows over. It’s what most of his colleagues are banking on. Quite literally.

PS: Lib Dem blogger Mark Reckons has published a transcript of the Pickles-Dimbleby exchange on his blog here. And Nick Perry has also blogged about it here.

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Um Brentwood 37 miles out of London? I am an Essex boy and I never realised Brentwood was that far out. 20 miles more like. Still if you want an excuse for 2 houses at public expense, distance can be no objective barrier.

by Richard T on March 27, 2009 at 9:16 am. Reply #

Um, you’re right – at least according to Google Maps. But Eric certainly says it’s 37 miles on the programme: I simply took his word for it… :~

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2009 at 9:22 am. Reply #

The point Pickles was trying to make (not particularly well granted) was that for someone serving on committees as well as having to be in debates etc you would have to get to Westminster for 9.30 in the morning and not be leaving until 11 at night. A big ask of anyone. Unlike any other jobs where you have flexibility of where you live he has to be 38 miles from Westminster.

In my opinion the Government should pay the mortgages on the properties, but these should be tied to the seats not the MP, so ultimately the taxpayer owns the property. If this had happened 30 years ago, the homes would be owned outright by now and we could stop pouring money down this blackhole.

by notquitegabriel on March 27, 2009 at 9:24 am. Reply #

“But Eric’s justification was risible: he needs a second home, he told us, because “the House of Commons runs like clockwork”, and he simply can’t be late;”

You mean like Emily Thornberry who missed the vote on David Heath’s fuel poverty bill, arriving immediately afterwards and starting her contribution:
“May I begin by apologising for not being able to be here earlier today? I had a surgery in my constituency at the Golden Lane campus, a new school that was opened yesterday by Princess Anne.”
(Emily Thornberry is an inner London MP so doesn’t claim ACA)

by Hywel on March 27, 2009 at 9:32 am. Reply #

According to the AA routefinder, from the centre of Brentwood to the House of Commons is almost exactly 34 miles of non-crow-flies roadway.

That is going via the M25, avoiding Hornchurch, Bow and Stepney, and instead using the A10 via Seven Sisters.

Maybe it is a 37 mile drive from Pickles and Jam’s house by the fastest route (if the M25 can ever be called the fastest route)?

by Edis on March 27, 2009 at 9:50 am. Reply #

When I lived in London, I knew a number of people who lived in the Brentwood area and they never had problems (other than the usual) of getting in to London for 9.30 – they maybe just left a little earlier than normal. In my view, you could simply look at the commuter lines around London and see where commuters come from to decide who gets the second homes allowance – probably as far north as Peterborough, for example.

Of course, the other option is to build a purpose-built Parliament building outside of London with accomodation on site for all MPs – but they’ll never do that, will they?

by KL on March 27, 2009 at 10:02 am. Reply #

It should be remembered that Pickles is not just some backbench MP – he is the party chairman ie the public face of the party.
So when people say the Tories have changed just remind them of last night and say: “Same old Tories”

by Allan Knox on March 27, 2009 at 10:05 am. Reply #

Someone really needs to take Mr Cohen MP for Leyton to task for that £100,000 he’s spending on his allowance. As someone who gets annoyed at the cyncial lambasting of politicians for everything, it still makes me sick to my stomach.

by Simon on March 27, 2009 at 12:48 pm. Reply #

@ notquitegabriel: I agree entirely about having a ‘seat house.’ 10 and 11 Downing St are houses in which the PM and Chancellor live, whosoever be the current occupants – why not have a house, it could even be a really nice house, in each constituency, which houses whoever is representing that seat? Seems easy enough, and as you say, the public owns the house after 25 years.

As for Pickles – what a show…! squirmed like there’s no way out…!

by Teek on March 27, 2009 at 1:36 pm. Reply #

My god. That is pure comedy gold. I second the call for the Youtube rip.

by Alix on March 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm. Reply #

What on earth route was Eric Pickles taking if it took him 4 hours to get from Brentwood to Westminster?! There are direct trains from Shenfield (part of Brentwood, in his constituency) to Liverpool St which take 23 minutes… With that and his 37 mile claims, it seems maths really isn’t his strong point!

by Jenni on March 27, 2009 at 2:27 pm. Reply #

So, where do you draw the line? My old MP, Adrian, claims for a flat in London, cost of about £22K PA, because he lives in Torbay, 200 miles away. My current MP, Chris McCafferty, claims similar, and lives roughly the same distance away.

I want my MP to be fresh and able to pay attention to debates, read the legislation, deal with correspondence, etc. We’re talking people who, during times when Parliament sits, do roughly 50-60 hour weeks (I know that’s what the two MPs I know fairly well do, anyway).

They’re sometimes there first thing in the morning and also still there last thing at night.

When I first graduated, I lived in Exeter, but got a job in Torquay, about 25 miles. The hour commute each way each day did my head in. the commute into Westminster? When I lived in London, I had my hours set to be flexible after 10am, because London rush hour commutes are something you avoid if at all possible unless you’re insane.

I don’t want MPs arriving at the house frazzled, pissed off, unable to concentrate and fed up after a 2-3 hour commute. I definitely think MPs, of all people, deserve a decent nights sleep every night, and 2 hours in, 2 hrs back, after a maybe 14 hour day? That’s not enough time to eat, let alone sleep and think.

So, where do you draw the line? It used to be inner London, because of the regular late night sittings after the tube shut down. Now, I think it should be Greater London, but after that?

Some MPs might be lucky and live near a mainline station that takes them right to Waterloo. Even the train Jennie says only gets to Liverpool St, during rush hour that’s another half hour tube journey on the most crammed trains in London, if you can get on a train.

Then there’s getting home.

MPs need to live close to Westminster. They also need to live in the constituency.

When Lloyd George first introduced a salary for MPs, he set it at £400 PA, in order to attract the talented and capable.

We want to reduce the number of MPs, but even for 650 of them, that’s bugger all, how many GPs are there? Headteachers? I want MPs to be the best the country has to offer.

£400 in Lloyd George’s day is about £140K in todays money, MPs aren’t paid anywhere close to that. In Thatcher’s era, they kept salaries down but increased allowances.

The whole thing needs root and branch reform. Pickles has voted against some of those reforms. Attack him for that. Attack him for being unable to defend something that makes absolute sense.

But don’t attack the principle that our MPs need to be able to do their jobs effectively. They’re already bad enough as it is.

by MatGB on March 27, 2009 at 5:25 pm. Reply #

Keep watching it – I’ve seen it at number 7 on bbc.co.uk most watched videos, but its now slipped to number 10…

Its more obvious that he is Tory Chairman on the small screen, too. I didn’t notice that helpful caption last night.

by Liberttag on March 27, 2009 at 6:13 pm. Reply #

Very interesting to see at the end of the Eric Pickles debacle a “member of the public” condemning:

“the establishment coming out today and saying they haven’t done anything wrong and when thats happening we haven’t a chance of putting it right. So I would quickly say to the MPs if they can’t get by on their nice expenses …. I would suggest they leave and let other people who can get by do it”

Except that this member of the public is Conservative Councillor Colin Horncastle of Northumberland, deputy leader of Tynedale Distirct Council and area committee chair of the Tynedale area committee on the County Council.

Nice to see that when his party chairman is under heavy attack a senior local Tory puts the boot in. With friends like these who needs opponents!

I wonder if Cllr Horncastle is annoyed that his constituency party has installed a carpetbagging wiltshire lawyer as their PPC for Hexham instead of a prominent local councillor.

by Neil Bradbury on March 27, 2009 at 10:49 pm. Reply #

If anyone wants to put it on YouTube, you can grab the BBC video with a program called Replay Media Center but you’ll need to register it for $40.

YouTube will happily accept .flv uploads.

by Richard G on March 28, 2009 at 7:38 am. Reply #

It’s only the first two minutes, but it’s a start.

by Richard G on March 28, 2009 at 7:51 am. Reply #

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