While Labour is languishing in the poll doldrums at the moment, the Tories are having a few problems of their own. There's Dishy Dave, rattling along, proclaiming his reformist credentials, when all of a sudden, Giles Chichester, recently appointed to lead the Tory herd of MEPs and sorting out the nightmare of expense claims, appeared not to understand that funnelling payments through a family company wasn't the best example to set. And then their European chief whip gets the bullet for similar shenanigans, with three or four MEPs now under scrutiny.
Then came Friday's Newsnight and the foreign difficulties came home to Westminster as Michael Crick - a name that strikes terror into the hearts of politicians - launched a report claiming that Caroline Spelman had paid her nanny from public funds for a short period after the 1997 election. During the 2005 election, it was frequently said that the five most terrifying words were 'Michael Crick is in reception' and the man is renowned for being terrier like with his political prey - Jeffrey Archer can testify to that.
'My predecessor, Ian Mills, had suffered an untimely death about six weeks before the General Election so there was quite a backlog of correspondence and therefore I accepted the opportunity to have part-time administrative and secretarial help from Tina Hayne because I had advertised my home as constituency office - there was no other constituency office that Ian Mills had, nor staff in the constituency and Tina would answer the telephone for me and open the post and sort it for me and arrange it into files and as a working mother that offered a practical solution as she could deal with the secretarial side while the children were in school and then after school provided childcare for my kids... the Chief Whip made me aware that such a situation could be open to misinterpretation.'
After her conversation with the Chief Whip - we don't know who initiated the discussion - Ms Spelman terminated the agreement. Was this a case of a new MP overstepping the mark and being warned off or was it a simple mistake?
I've been digging around a bit myself and there are a couple of interesting things here.
Firstly, nowhere does Ms Spelman specify where her home was in 1997-98 - she is not going to disabuse you of the thought that it might have been in Meriden itself. Thing is that it wasn't. During 97 and 98 - and possibly for a little longer - Ms Spelman lived with her family in Kent.I've been digging away and discovered that the local Conservative Association in Meriden were furious at her delaying a promised move to the constituency. I believe that she didn't find anywhere in Meriden to live until 1999. The address used for her in Meriden was the Conservative Association constituency secretary (not the same role), Les Kyles and the address given in Who's Who 1997 (published at the end of the year) is the usual Tory address.
A well-placed source has also told me that they have no recollection of the name 'Tina Haynes' or 'Tina Rawlins' (her maiden name) as being anything like a constituency secretary at the time, as she would certainly have appeared on the radar in the constituency.
The Tory chairman confirmed she did this for a few months after she was first elected to the Commons in 1997 because Haynes performed secretarial duties in her Meriden constituency, in the West Midlands, during school hours before looking after her three children later in the day.
Additionally, Spelman's youngest child was not yet three in 1997, so would hardly have attended school at that point. Now, I note that this paragraph is not a direct quote from Ms Spelman, so there might be an error in interpretation over whether Haynes worked in Meriden or in Kent - but one that Caroline has seen no reason to correct. Indeed, throughout, she has not - to my knowledge - discussed where the work was actually undertaken, happy to give the impression that it all took place in the Heart, rather than the Garden, of England.
Then there are the claims that there would have been a backlog of work following the death of her predecessor. This is simply overstating the truth. Most MPs casework is dealing with things like benefit, immigration and housing issues, which usually require detailed knowledge of the legislation. Now Meriden is a constituency of two halves. Firstly, there is the extremely rich, semi-rural end with properties running into seven figures with pools and paddocks for the ponies. Not really much call for benefit queries up there, even at the fag-end of a failed Tory government - they weren't quite down to their last Range Rover Vogues there. The other half is Chelmsley Wood, which is typical Labour territory - council and ex-council housing. In fact, if one ward in Chelmsey Wood had turned out the usual vote for Labour in 1997, then this article would never have been penned, as Brian Seymour-Smith would have won the seat for Labour, remarkably enough. But I digress. Clearly, this would generate far more typical casework, but back in 1997, the residents had the benefit of resident Labour councillors. The local people would no more have taken their problems to the Tory MP than they would crawl across broken glass to vote for him or her.
The final nail in this part of the story is the fact that if there was so much casework to handle, surely Ian Mills would have had a team in place to assist. He didn't.
The other interesting piece for me is the source for the story.
Read a transcript:
These are the most non-committal of answers to quite detailed questions. Did Michael Crick suddenly get interested in the decade-old domestic arrangements of the Tory chief whip - or was he pointed in the right direction by somebody in the know? The latter seems more likely. Ms Haynes hardly seems forthcoming and ready to dish the dirt on her employer - she was willing to provide a statement within a few hours putting the right spin on the situation to coincide with the line taken by Caroline Spelman. So, who grassed up Spelman - and why?
Tina Haynes: I did obviously do odd secretarial things for her obviously took phone calls and if obviously if there were any documents that she needed posting things like that I did things like that for her.
Michael Crick: So there was some secretarial work?
Tina Haynes: Yeah, yeah.
Michael Crick: So how many hours a week would that have been?
Tina Haynes: To be honest with you, six years down the line, I can't honestly remember.
Michael Crick: But the vast bulk of the work was nannying work?
Tina Haynes: Yeah, I did nannying, yeah.
Could it have been an opposition job - Labour or the Lib Dems? Possibly, but why sit on it until now? Surely such a revelation would have been used in the 2001 or 2005 campaigns if we had been aware of it and my sources say that we most certainly weren't. Certainly, the Labour Party have joined in the attacks on Ms Spelman with gusto and the usual round of complaints will go in to the Parliamentary Commissioner - that's to be expected.
Actually, I don't think that the real source is within the Labour Party - although they may have been used as a conduit. I suspect that Caroline has ruffled a few too many feathers as she attempts to follow her leader's instructions to get the drains up and dig out those who aren't playing fair on their expenses. Somebody on her own side has decided that she's vulnerable to criticism and decided to fire a shot across her bows - and by extension across David Cameron's attempts to get the Tory snouts out of the Eurotrough.