What follows is an expanded version of an account I wrote (for the Mail on Sunday of 24th May) of David Cameron's supposed open meeting with the voters on the subject of the Commons scandal. I don't live in Mr Cameron's constituency, but I do live close enough to it to have bicycled to his Friday meeting in Witney, which is being portrayed, in my view misleadingly, as David Cameron braving the people on the subject of MPs' expenses.
Here's the article:
‘You might think that David Cameron had subjected himself to the wrath of the voters on Friday and come away unscathed. Reports and pictures have appeared of Mr Cameron facing an allegedly open meeting in the Witney Corn Exchange. The Leader of the Opposition - unlike Andrew MacKay - escaped without any angry heckling.
This is despite the fact that Mr Cameron is far from being in the clear. He admits to having wrongly claimed £680 to clear wisteria from the chimney of his spacious country home. And he got us taxpayers to pay the interest (£1,700 a month for most of the last eight years) on his £350,000 mortgage, a mortgage he may not actually need. But why spend your own money when the public will pay for you to have an interest-free loan?
Well, I was there and I can tell you how Mr Cameron managed to get such a smooth ride. First of all, the meeting was at noon on a Friday, a time when most people with jobs haven't time to go to meetings.
Second, the local Tories did what they could to hold a supposedly public occasion in private. I only knew of it because of a brief mention of it in my local paper, the 'Oxford Mail'. The website of Witney Conservatives seems to be frozen in time, and doesn't deal with any of Mr Cameron's engagements since 24th April.
When I turned up on the doorstep, it was guarded by various apparatchiks sitting at desks with lists, and making it look as if it was in some way a members-only function. An inexperienced person, new to politics, might easily have been put off. The aides gulped visibly when they saw me, but had more sense than to try to keep me out.
A freelance TV truck was parked outside, but nothing from Sky or the BBC. When, I wonder, were the big broadcasters informed of the event? And who decided which clips of the occasion they saw? Mr Cameron had a mike clipped to his tie, so anything he said could be recorded, but questioners were not offered a microphone and any heckling or hostility - had it happened - would have been indistinct on videotape.
Once the meeting started, it was clear that the local loyalists had been summoned to fill most of the 200 seats. The average age was well over 50. Mr Cameron recognised almost every questioner by name, and most of them addressed him familiarly as ‘David’. Every trick in the Tony Blair Fake Sincerity Handbook was used. There was no lectern, so Mr Cameron looked defenceless and vulnerable. He took off his jacket as soon as questions began, and he deployed his (absent) wife as a human shield when awkward questions - about how rich they are - came up. Do we have a £30 million fortune? Chuckle. Samantha must have spent it all, ha ha. No specific answer, though.
Apart from me, the only seriously troublesome questioner was a lone Liberal Democrat. And after Mr Cameron eventually allowed me to ask my question (which he didn't answer), the final say was given to a fervent Cameron fan, who decried any suggestions that Mr Cameron had done anything wrong.
The Tory leader knew he was safe. He was so sure he was among friends that he used a rude word beginning with 'a', and offered, rashly to work for half the pay.
If Mr Cameron really wants to find out what the people of West Oxfordshire think about him, his mortgage and his chimney, I suggest he hires a bigger hall, advertises the event both to local people and the national media, and holds it when normal men and women won't be at work.’
And here are some extracts from what he said, with my thoughts on them. I can't provide a complete transcript and don't claim this is one. But I have selected some parts which I think were specially interesting. He insisted he needed two homes, even though he admitted it was possible to commute the distance (many in his constituency do, and it is about 75 miles each way). He said that his children were educated in London (which is true) and that Parliament still sits late on Monday or Tuesday night.
Well, yes, but I would say that a constituency home is a convenience rather than an absolute necessity. If his children are at school in London, then he will in any case be in London on Monday or Tuesday, the only days when the Commons usually sits late. He only really needs to be in his constituency all day on Fridays and perhaps Saturdays - a need that could be met, in my view, by a comfortable bed and breakfast or at most a small house or flat. I am still unconvinced by the idea that MPs with seats outside London need two homes as a matter of course. Members with remote constituencies obviously need a toehold in London, an expensive place to live. MPs with seats in or very close to London obviously don't need two homes at all. I do wonder, if Mr Cameron sat for a less picturesque part of the country (and west Oxfordshire is delightful), around the same distance from Notting Hill, whether he would be so keen to have a weekend home there, and take his family there so often.
I've put in the occasional 'er' or 'erm' where I think it adds to the account, ie in showing hesitation, but not all of them. And I've also mentioned audience laughter, to illustrate the general sympathy of the curiously assembled audience with Mr Cameron, which I believe is explained above. I've also inserted some commentary of my own.
Mr Cameron explained his rules: ‘What I claim for, I always tried to ask myself 'What is it reasonable to claim for ... not what the rules say, but what is reasonable?’
He then set out what he regarded as reasonable. ’From 2001 to 2007 the only thing I really claimed for in respect of my second home was the interest on a mortgage, not the repayments but the interest. It was a very large mortgage, it was £350,000 worth of mortgage, it was about £1,700 a month that I was claiming. That was quite close to the maximum you could claim at the time but I did not at that stage claim for anything else...’
My comment: To me, £350,000 seems to be a colossal mortgage, especially for someone on a Parliamentary salary, as he was when he first took it on, or even the Leader of the Opposition's salary, which he is now drawing. We do not know whether this sum paid in full for the Camerons' country home. I would suspect that it probably didn't, since large properties in pleasant Oxfordshire villages generally went, even eight years ago, for rather more than that. Several questions arise. Could he have paid for the property out of his own resources? Did he need such a large house? Did he, before the current scandal, assume that he was bound to benefit in the long term from the likely increase in the price of the house during what promised to be a long political career? Now, of course, this is ruled out, but was it then? And £1,700 a month, tax free, is a lot of money, more than the total that comes into quite a few households. How urgent would the need be to justify this?
Mr Cameron continued: ’....In 2007 I was able to pay down the mortgage a little bit, so it was a £250,000 mortgage, paying about £1,000 in mortgage interest every month, and so I also claimed for what I would call some pretty straightforward household bills, council tax, oil, gas, erm, and other utility type bills and insurance on the property. And that has been the case from the beginning of 2007 right through to now. I now claim less than the maximum allowed, I don't claim all of those utility bills, I claim a percentage of them, because I think that's right and fair.’
My comment: He 'paid down' the mortgage' a 'little bit'. That 'little bit' turns out to be £100,000, once again a very large sum by most people's standards. And also, if you choose to run a second home, shouldn't you accept that it's up to you to insure it, pay the fuel bills and council tax on it? And wouldn't it be prudent to choose such a home on the basis that you would want to keep such bills low, rather than expect others to defray them?
‘But I have claimed one bill that I thought was questionable, and so I decided to pay it back. This is the infamous wisteria bill (laughter) as it will now always be known. It was actually a maintenance bill. It was a bill for £680 and it was a bill I claimed at the time because I judged it was about maintenance not about decoration or improvement. It was to mend a leaky roof, it was to put some outside lights on the property for security and mend some ones that were broken and it was to remove this infamous wisteria which was nothing to do with pruning a plant. It was because I have a chimney with a fan on it to get the smoke out so I can light a fire. It had stopped working and the wisteria needed to be removed from it. I claimed for that bill because I thought it was maintenance not decoration but I think MPs have got to show a lead and have got to show some responsibility and have got to take any bill that is frankly questionable or borderline and pay it back. So that is what I am going to do. I am not aware of any other bill for my second home that is inappropriate or should be paid back but were one to emerge in this great process I will happily do that.‘
My comment: It is not clear from this whether Mr Cameron really thinks he ought to have paid back the wisteria money. It sounds to me as if he thinks he was justified in claiming it but announced he would pay it back for the sake of appearances. Otherwise, why the long, long justification? Why should we worry about whether he can light a fire or not?
He gave a long explanation in defence of MPs' office expenses, and promised to look through his office expenses in case there were any questionable payments, which he promised to pay back.
He made it clear that he had done no 'flipping', switching the designation of his 'second home' so as to maximise claims. And he added:
‘I always try to ask what is reasonable to claim, not what can you claim. I have never claimed for cleaners, gardeners, furniture, food, decorations, duck houses (laughter), moats (laughter), swimming pools or anything like that. I am not putting up my hand and saying I am whiter than white - that didn't get Tony Blair anywhere (laughter) or saying I am better than anybody else but it's just a judgement I took that there were sensible things to claim - that I did claim even though I am relatively well off because the claim was there if you needed to maintain a second home - and I think to do my job properly I need to maintain a second home.’
My comment: How do these rules apply? If this is right for him, what about other MPs, especially Tory frontbenchers, who have claimed for some or all of the things above? Should they go, without exception? If not, what does it mean that Mr Cameron thinks it is wrong to claim these things? Also, his statement that he is ‘relatively well off’ raises the question of how well off he is. He has brushed aside the suggestion, made by the wealth expert Philip Beresford, that Mr and Mrs Cameron together are worth £30 million, and said it was untrue on the Andrew Marr programme. Very well then. I think he's entitled to reasonable privacy on this, and doesn't have to reveal the exact contents of his bank accounts. But can someone please put to him the question in a public place: ’Could you have afforded to pay for your Oxfordshire home yourself?’
Listening to my tape of the Question and Answer session I notice that almost all the questions are general, addressed to Mr Cameron as Opposition Leader or political pundit, not as an individual MP who might himself have gone too far in living on the public payroll. That's not surprising, if my analysis above is right. I've also begun to notice that Mr Cameron now makes much of the fact that Parliament has lost much of its power to ‘Europe’ and the Judges. He speaks as if he plans to correct this. But he knows perfectly well that unless Britain leaves the EU, most of our legislation will be imposed on us by the European Commission. So this seems to me to be just talk. A small digression here. Vikki Boynton posted last week that the Tory position on Lisbon is: ’If the Lisbon Treaty is not yet in force at the time of the next general election, and a Conservative Government is elected, we would put the Treaty to a referendum of the British people, recommending a 'no' vote. If the British people rejected the Treaty, we would withdraw Britain's ratification of it.’ Seems clear.‘
Yes, it does *seem* clear. It is meant to seem clear. But it is not. A British withdrawal of ratification would be followed by immense pressure from the EU to change that position. There is a great appetite in Brussels to get on with ratification. How would a Cameron government respond to that pressure? I believe it would 'negotiate' a 'compromise' that would end with Lisbon coming into force more or less as it is. That is the key question, and one you won't get an answer to. Only a government which clearly wished to leave the EU could possibly escape from this bind.
One other small point about Mr Cameron's performance. At one stage he spoke repeatedly about how many peers (or rather how few) he had 'created'. So far as I know, it is the Queen who creates political peers, on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition, by convention, may usually suggest names, but (as happened to William Hague over one controversial nomination) the Prime Minister may decline to take his advice. It passed me by at the time, numbed as I was by the general sycophancy, but the person sitting next to me (a distinguished commentator who shall remain nameless) pointed it out and I thought I would share it with you.