“We kept within the rules.” That’s been the increasingly plaintive and threadbare defence of MPs in the row over parliamentary expenses.
As they have been driving a ride-on lawnmower, let alone a water pipe under a tennis court, through the rules, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, had finally had enough.
But unlike Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, who all apologised to the voters, the Speaker appeared more concerned with protecting MPs from greater outside scrutiny of their expenses than safeguarding the public from further abuse.
The main target of his anger was not the errant MPs who have brought the whole of parliament into disrepute and infuriated the public struggling with economic recession.
Instead he lashed out at the Daily Telegraph newspaper – which for the past four days has entertained the nation with the breathtaking scale of parliamentary expenses claims; the unknown Commons employee who leaked all the details of the expenses claims for a reported six-figure sum; and two MPs who questioned whether the Commons authorities had been too slow in releasing the full expense claims and were now going over the top in calling in the police.
Martin’s term as Speaker has not been a happy one. The former Glaswegian sheet metal worker has been dubbed “Gorbals Mick” by parliamentary sketchwriters even though he never lived in that district of Glasgow.
He has struggled to assert his authority over the Commons and now fears that he is being lined up as the fall guy – because he is ultimately in charge of the rules for MPs.
On his watch, the Metropolitan Police entered parliament, searched the offices of an MP and arrested the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green, casting aside centuries of parliamentary privilege.
Now the the whole reputation of parliament has fallen to probably its lowest level in modern times as MPs have been shown to charge the taxpayer for items ranging from lightbulbs and pet food to sofas – everything except the cuddly toy on the conveyor belt of the former TV show the Generation Game.
After announcing that an “operational assurance unit with independent oversight” would come into operation shortly to check whether MPs were submitting claims within the spirit of the rules, Martin confirmed that the police had been called in to investigate the leak.
Kate Hoey, the independently-minded Labour MP for Vauxhall, challenged the decision to call in the Met Police, pointing out that the newspaper concerned had not published sensitive details such as MPs’ addresses or bank account numbers.
When she suggested the police might have more important things to do, and the public might see the investigation as a waste of money, Martin slapped her down.
“I listen to you often, when I turn on my television at midnight, and I hear your public utterances and your pearls of wisdom on Sky News. It’s easy to talk then,” he told the MP.
He was clearly not impressed with her latest “pearls of wisdom” even though they were uttered in the Commons chamber on not in a TV studio.
According to Martin she was suggesting there was a “employee of his House” who should be left on the loose with all the personal information of every Hon Member, including signatures of employees, private ex-directory numbers and telephone passwords that could be sold to the highest bidder.
Another thorn in Martin’s side, Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, had the temerity to suggest that the Commons should speed up the release of the millions of receipts of MPs for the last four years instead of waiting until July.
Martin accused Baker of being ready to “say to the press whatever the press wants to hear” – effectively being a “rent-a-quote MP”.
Baker tends to see a conspiracy behind every bush, but he has been prepared to speak out against so-called sleaze – angering many of his colleagues at Westminster as well as the Speaker.
It is only as a result of outspoken MPs like Baker, as well as Freedom of Information campaigners and the media, that the scandal of MPs’ expenses has come to light and is now being cleaned up.
The word sorry had until recently always been the hardest word for Gordon Brown – though he is now finally finding it easier to say as his government staggers from crisis to crisis. It is a lesson the Speaker could take to heart.