Gravy Train Crashes for UK Lawmakers

May 21, 2009 - 12:21 AM
A growing backlash over questionable expenses long secretly claimed by British lawmakers may see more politicians' heads roll, experts say.~~
Gordon Brown at press conference

At his monthly press conference at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, May 19, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced questions about the abuse of MPs’ expenses claims. (AP Photo)

London (AP) – Goodbye, gravy train. It was great while it lasted – but then the public caught on.

British lawmakers are dealing with a growing backlash over questionable expenses kept secret until last week, when a British newspaper began publishing stories based on millions of leaked receipts. The litany of abuses has dominated the front pages and airwaves since then, stoking a palpable public sense of betrayal.

Some in Parliament are calling it the "Quiet Revolution" – a surge of anger forcing lawmakers to consider relinquishing power they've had for centuries. Interim rules will now greatly limit flagrant abuses of power, and more far-reaching changes are expected as Parliament considers giving up some of its sovereignty to mollify the public.

Britain is in the throes of a quiet but forceful "peasants' revolt" without demonstrations in the street but with rising anger and frustration expressed on blogs, radio talk shows and opinion polls, said Bill Jones, a professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University. He said citizen fury about high-living politicians is made much worse by the deep recession that has cost so many their jobs and their houses.

"It's a very deeply entrenched feeling of revulsion of what the political class has been up too," Jones said. "They have been shamed. There will be more heads to roll."

He said the disillusioned public is forcing politicians to make substantial constitutional changes virtually overnight, instead of at the usual glacial pace.

Not only are the new, interim rules already in place – no more claiming reimbursement for mortgage interest payments that were never actually made, for example – but Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for outside regulators to administer the new system, which would end centuries of parliamentary sovereignty over its own affairs.

The prime minister's startling message: Lawmakers can't be trusted to handle taxpayers' money.

Newly announced interim rules will cap the amount lawmakers can claim for mortgage expenses on their second homes and also limit the items that can be claimed for reimbursement. Strategies used to avoid capital gains taxes will also be barred.

Senior Cabinet member Harriet Harman told lawmakers Wednesday that excessive claims would be studied and money that had been taken improperly would be paid back.

But veterans of Britain's bare-knuckled political wars say they cannot recall a time when public trust has sunk so low.

"The public feels contempt, disbelief with the sheer hypocrisy of so many politicians," said Bernard Ingham, who was press secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "I think it is quite dangerous for our democracy. People have very little faith in their Parliament to do anything honestly. I don't think we've had anything quite like it."

Ingham admitted that abuses went on during Thatcher's time in office – and that former Prime Minister John Major's final years were marked by embarrassing sex scandals, but he said Britain had never before seen such a widespread loss of confidence in lawmakers.

"They have failed to distinguish between what might have been allowed under a very lax system and what was morally right," he said, adding that all three major parties have been hurt by the embarrassing revelations.

The burgeoning scandal has already cost House Speaker Michael Martin his job, and several lawmakers have said they will not seek re-election, but this does not seem to have satisfied the public's desire for change.

Andrew Russell, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, said the changes are a necessary first step of restoring public trust, but it remains to be seen whether they will be enough.

"All it does is give the baying crowd a thirst for more," he said.

He also discounted rumors that Brown might call a surprise snap election to try to vindicate himself.

"It would just be suicide," he said.

(Associated Press Writer Danica Kirka contributed to this story.)