From porn to political chaos, UK expenses row spreads

LONDON (Reuters) - Like many political scandals, from Watergate to Italy’s notorious “Bribesville” affair, Britain’s parliamentary expenses row has its roots in humble if somewhat undignified events.

Britain's outgoing Home Secretary (interior minister) Jacqui Smith walks through Westminster in central London, June 3, 2009. REUTERS/ Eddie Keogh

In March, the husband of Jacqui Smith, Britain’s interior minister and one of the most powerful politicians in the country, had to publicly apologize for charging two pornographic films he watched at home to his wife’s parliamentary expenses.

It followed a disclosure about Smith’s use of parliamentary housing allowances, and led to a flood of revelations about politicians’ expenses in The Daily Telegraph newspaper that has gripped the nation for the past four weeks.

Smith, once regarded as a future potential leader of the governing Labour Party, has now announced she is resigning, becoming the latest in a string of members of parliament (MPs) to be brought down in the slowly seeping affair. Another senior minister, Hazel Blears, announced on Wednesday she was going.

At its heart, the scandal is about MPs, who are relatively lowly paid in Britain by comparison with politicians in the United States or elsewhere in Europe, earning around 65,000 pounds ($108,000) a year, using the expenses system to its fullest extent in order to flesh out their income.

In some cases the claims have been absurd: one MP charged more than 1,600 pounds for a floating duck house, another for horse manure, one for cleaning his moat and others for everything from tennis court repairs to a bath plug. Voters have been outraged, seeing parliament, where MPs sit on green leather benches and follow stuffy traditions dating back 800 years, as little more than a clubby world for a few to enrich themselves and feather their nests.

The most egregious cases -- or certainly the ones that have angered Britons the most -- have involved second home allowances and the ability of those who represent districts outside London to switch the first and second home designation, avoiding costly capital gains tax when they sell property.

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As many have pointed out, in the vast majority of cases no rules were broken, but the scandal has revealed such an unseemly, money-grabbing underbelly to British politics that it now threatens to bring down the government, even if members of all the major parties have been involved in exploiting the rules.


In an effort to get on top of the scandal, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of the opposition Conservatives, David Cameron, have both proposed sweeping changes to parliament and its rules, hoping to win back public confidence.

But the damage already appears to have been done -- both Labour and the Conservatives are expected to be rebuked at the ballot box when European and local elections are held on Thursday, with Labour probably coming off the worse.

Brown, who succeeded Tony Blair in June 2007 without an election and has struggled to sustain authority since, is expected to rearrange his cabinet immediately after Thursday’s vote, but it may do little to stem Labour’s demise.

The next parliamentary election does not have to be held until June next year, giving Brown a year to try to revive his fortunes and those of the party. But he is under increasing pressure to bring the election forward and clear the air. Some political commentators do not expect him to succumb, however, predicting he will hang on for as long as possible.

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If the economy turns around before next June, it may even bolster his party’s hopes of an unprecedented fourth election win, although all polls show the Conservatives winning easily.

With the resignation of two senior ministers in two days -- Smith and Blears -- it does look like the expenses row is leading inexorably to Brown’s departure: porn films leading to political collapse. But that may be overstating the case.

Watergate, which started with an inept break-in, did eventually bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency, but it took years and there was criminality at the heart of the affair. Italy’s “Bribesville” scandal, which began with the head of an old people’s home paying backhanders, brought down a generation of Italian politicians in the early 1990s and revealed a multi-million dollar system of kickbacks.

By comparison, Britain’s scandal looks minor, but it may yet end Labour’s run of 12 years in power.