How well is Cameron dealing with MPs' expenses?

by Stephen Tall on May 29, 2009

Until the last couple of days, received wisdom – both among the mainstream media and the blogosphere – is that David Cameron has had a ‘good crisis’, dealing firmly with those Tory MPs who’ve committed egregious expenses abuses (from moats to trees to duck islands) and being ahead of the curve on democratic reforms.

So I was intrigued to read this analysis by the London Evening Standard’s Paul Waugh today, which notes how this received wisdom is now beginning to be questioned, not least by Tory MPs themselves:

… as the days have gone on, it seems that Cameron has also made some tactical decisions that his MPs are now bitterly regretting. The most pressing is his decision to effectively demand that his MPs subject themselves to the public stocks whenever there was an accusation that they had misclaimed public funds.

The formula seemed tough and simple – appear before your voters at a public meeting and explain yourself. … The problem with the public stocks approach is, as Team Cameron rapidly realised with the [Julie] Kirkbride case, that it can be fraught with difficulty. What if there is a hardcore of opponents just out to get the MP? Is your public meeting open to all comers or registered voters? …

Tory MPs are now grumbling privately that Cameron has “released the mob” by suggesting they all appear before public meetings. They want to know when or if the genie can be put back in the bottle. Having been impressed by their leader, some now fear that he has made a huge tactical blunder in a bid to meet the demands of a voracious media. But if Cameron were suddenly to announce he no longer expects his MPs to face public meetings, he risks being accused of wobbling.

Labour has not been slow to spot the potential weakness on the leadership issue. Ed Balls pointed out today that not a single Tory MP has had the whip withdrawn to date, whereas Labour have suspended three MPs. Cameron says that it was the very threat to withdraw the whip that resulted in Steen, Hogg and Viggers all agreeing to quit at the next election.

Cameron claimed today that he had been tough when he needed to but also fair and “consistent”. Yet with every case appearing to have its own quirks, backbenchers believe it is impossible to be “consistent” without appearing to adopt a blanket approach. …

His allies will say that Cameron can’t win in the eyes of his critics. But others are wondering whether the MPs expenses affair – and his invitation to the “mob” – has exposed his Blairesque fondness for an “eye-catching initiative”.

The whole article is well worth a read HERE. It’s a fair analysis, I feel, which duly reflects the ‘no win’ situation the three major party leaders will feel themselves in at the moment. I draw attention to it not especially to take cheap partisan pot-shots at Mr Cameron – fun though that sometimes is – but to redress some of the balance of the debate about which leader has performed best in this crisis.

Yes, David Cameron has won some decent headlines – but is there much evidence that he’s persuaded the public of his reformist credentials? PoliticsHome’s survey of public opinion suggests voters are considerably more sceptical than some of the mainstream media, while recent opinion polls have suggested a sharp dip in Tory support. Caught as we (still) are in the maelstrom of local and Euro election campaigns and the MPs’ expenses row it is of course impossible yet to tell how, or even if, the plates have shifted, and who might prove the ultimate beneficiaries.