Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
There is something almost unbearably stupid about these rows over ministerial expenses.
This week, Labour’s Angela Rayner invited us to be shocked – shocked – at the fact that Rishi Sunak stayed at an expensive hotel in Venice when, as Chancellor, he attended a G20 finance ministers’ summit there.
Sunak’s was the most prominent in a litany of supposed abominations. Ministers were, Rayner assured us, “living the high life” while “families up and down the country are sick with anxiety.”
What is wrong with this style of attack? Almost everything.
For one thing, it is false. Does Labour seriously want us to believe that Sunak went into politics for the money? That the richest man in the House of Commons saw the G20 summit chiefly as an opportunity for a nice jaunt? That he would not rather have spent the weekend at home with his young daughters?
When these high-level conferences happen, the chief delegates are automatically allocated rooms in the main hotel; the logistical and security arrangements for the host country would otherwise be a nightmare.
For what it’s worth, our politicians are remarkably low-maintenance by global standards. After the Coalition took over in 2010, ministers were wryly amused when, having travelled to EU summits with economy class airfares, they would find that their counterparts from the states that they were bailing out arrived by private jet.
But, of course, no one is interested in detail. Rayner’s diatribe is aimed at those who begin from the assumption that every Conservative MP is a spiv, and who are looking for ways to sustain that prejudice.
The trouble is that, if you whip up outrage against ministers, people don’t respond by saying “bloody Tories”; they respond by saying “bloody politicians”, which weakens the legitimacy of our entire system of representative government.
Rayner knows this. The reason the information she compiled was publicly available was that the Conservatives had insisted on a greater degree of transparency than did the Blair Government which introduced departmental credit cards. There is no partisan advantage to be had here. Sure enough, within hours, attention had switched to why Rayner had felt obliged to bill the taxpayer £249 for a pair of personalised AirPods.
For what it’s worth, Rayner’s defence struck me as completely justified. Pressed on why she had not gone for a cheaper model, she declared:
“I wouldn’t say that it’s luxury to have computer equipment; that is everyday expenditure for somebody that works with computers every day for their job.”
Quite. And attending a summit as a minister is just as much “their job” as using AirPods for a Zoom interview. It is dishonest to say, in effect, “My expenses are essential for my work, but yours are living high on the hog.”
True, some people’s definition of corruption correlates more or less 100 per cent with holding views with which they disagree.
Perhaps Rayner is in this category herself, and genuinely believes there is a difference between Labour expenses (necessary, proportionate, evidence of hard work) and Tory expenses (“treating taxpayers like a cash machine”). Or perhaps she is cynically aiming her remarks at others who think in this fashion.
Either way, she is weakening respect for our parliamentary democracy.
Shall I tell you what annoys me the most? It is the way that arguments over these relatively trivial sums distract attention from the vast amounts that our government machine is still needlessly spewing out, despite the lockdown debt, the continuing deficit, and the supposed need for tax rises.
I have lamented in columns past that a notionally Conservative government continues to issue boastful numbers, as if spending more were intrinsically meritorious. A briefing note I got before doing a BBC interview last year was a series of self-satisfied spending increases: £560 million on adult maths skills! £170 million on apprenticeships! £355 million on street lighting! £628 million on border technology!
Has this tendency slowed since Jeremy Hunt began raising taxes on grounds that there is no more fat left to cut? Au contraire, as we old Brussels hands say.
I am typing these words after bumping into my dedicated and ingenious local MP, Kit Malthouse. He had just compiled a list of some of the spending announced in the previous 24 hours:
This comprised: £77 million on zero emission ferries; £200 million on “active travel”; £32.5 million on red diesel replacement; £230 million on local football; £32 million on upgrading heat networks; £110 million on “guilt free flights”; £81 million on a self-driving bus; £29 million on the “Know Your Neighbourhood Fund”.
Does this strike you as a government that is cutting every penny to bring spending closer to pre-pandemic levels? How many more such 24-hour periods can we afford?
On all such profligacy, the Opposition says nothing. Starmer has no intention of reducing any of this spending. On the contrary, he wants more of it, funded by wealth taxes and windfall taxes. Yet Labour finds time to pretend to be upset about a £318 hotel bill. God, how depressing.