Monday, May 31, 2010

Hard knock life

Within a day of the resignation of the last Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the current incumbent (at time of writing) is facing pressure from the enforcement department of public opinion (formerly known as the Daily Telegraph).

To be fair to Mr Alexander - previously only thought to be a trainee Liberal Democrat funded by the Future Jobs Fund - this front page attack would seem to be more noise than genuine light. The London property that he sold may well have been a previous main residence prior to his 2005 election and thus the sale in 2007 would have fallen within a three year grace period allowed by HMRC for properties that were previously main homes, but are no longer. This was actually intended to assist those who have 'hard to sell' properties and were forced to move for work reasons, rather than MPs on expenses, and the policy did come under attack from the Liberal Democrats, who proposed reducing the period to six months, but we don't expect consistency from Liberal Democrats. In essence, what he did was legal tax avoidance, not evasion and wasn't specifically related to his status as an MP either. It is in a different category to David Laws' expenses claims.

However, there is a fair amount of bleating around the blogosphere about how unfair all this media coverage is - largely coming from the Liberal Democrat end of the market. To this, I simply say - tough.

There were no complaints when the media was roughing up the Labour or Conservative Party over the past couple of years over expenses. Back then, there was inadequate scrutiny of Liberal Democrat expenses because nobody thought it mattered - they had no reasonable chance of being in government, so the expenses of their MPs went largely without comment. One thing Cameron did do prior to the election was embark on a process of cleaning his own house out at ministerial-grade level, with potential post-holders being vetted to ensure that the risk of embarrassing financial skeletons appearing was minimised. This was clearly not done by Clegg and the Cowley Street team - probably because they didn't think that they would be in power either.

The fall from grace is all the more precipitous because Nick Clegg used every opportunity to raise Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to the status of saints in terms of their expenses. He held the party up as an example of probity when compared to the other two parties and he should not be surprised that this risky strategy is backfiring as the media start digging. Even one Danny Alexander was moved to write a piece in his local paper
We must urgently take MPs out of the property speculation game. MPs must no longer be able to 'flip’ their homes for personal gain or make big profits at the expense of the taxpayer

This isn't local government, where there is precious little scrutiny of what councillors actually do and where overworked local journalists fall like hungry jackals on any scraps pushed out by press officers across the country - with a few honourable exceptions, the art of local government reporting is dying. The Liberal Democrats are playing in the Premier League now and while they may face relegation at the end of the season, they can only expect more scrutiny of their behaviour and performance over coming months and years. If they think this is hot, just wait until they have been in government for a while and the media sharks start circling. It will only get worse, particularly once they actually start taking decisions and upsetting people.

Stop whinging and get on with it.

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