Monday, 18 May 2009

As goes Bromsgrove, so goes the nation

I ventured out at the weekend to sniff the mood of the nation over MP’s expenses (actually I was on an emergency nappy run to the local supermarket for my two year old but, in terms of stench, it amounted to pretty much the same thing).

Anyway, I can report that the mood, if you didn’t already know it, is venomous. The short walk from my house to the centre of Bromsgrove takes me past the Conservative Party constituency office, which now has a number of boarded up windows, courtesy of a luddite revenge attack on Friday. By the time I reached the centre of Bromsgrove, I had overheard two separate conversations on the street about MP’s expenses and had witnessed the unfurling of an enormous banner which proclaimed “Julie Out Now.”

This is reference to my local MP, Julie Kirkbride, the wife of Andrew Mackay, who last week was forced to resign from the Conservative front bench. Apparently, Julie and Andy have both been claiming for second homes in each other’s constituencies and have taken the taxpayer for the princely sum of approximately £100,000 so far. Now this is Bromsgrove, a bastion of Middle England. Lord only knows what public feeling is like in Darlington, Blackburn or Smethwick.

What is interesting, from a communications point of view, is how the individual parties are dealing with this. Cameron has remained marginally in front of the story (I’m not going to say he’s doing well, he’s doing just enough) with the swift dispatch of Mackay and the publication on the internet of every expenses claim he can get his hands on. Labour on the other hand, has been leaden-footed and behind the story from the word go.

This amazes me, because the legendary New Labour spin machine, set up by Mandelson and my former colleague at Shandwick, Colin Byrne, was formerly a ruthless beast, dealing swiftly with any individual who threatened to damage the brand. I was working at Shandwick when Ron Davies was ditched for his adventures on Clapham Common and there was barely a murmur of protest from the New Labour footsoldiers, including one of his former advisers. He was damaged goods, he had to go.

So how can Labour get in front of this story again. Well, firstly, the Leader of the Party, the Prime Minister, should announce that he is instructing local constituency parties that any MP found to have been overtly milking the system needs to be de-selected within a three-month timetable, whilst simultaneously calling on the leaders of the other parties to do the same. Borderline cases can be left to the discretion of constituency associations. Secondly, the Prime Minister should announce that, in the interests of Parliamentary democracy, he intends to prorogue Parliament and call a General Election in the autumn. This would enable the Prime Minister to appear statesmanlike and putting country above party. It won’t avert defeat, but it might allow him to go out with his head held a bit higher than is likely in April or May 2010. It might also save some Labour MPs who have acted totally honorably.

The alternative is for the country to limp on for another year with a wounded Government, a damaged Parliament and illegitimate de-selected MPs who have been forced to agree to stand down at the next election. I think we all deserve more than that, but I also think that is exactly what is likely to happen.