Does Cameron have the guts to stop the sleaze?

Last updated at 22:52 29 February 2008

Occasionally, in life, one goes through those quite lengthy periods when matters just drift. There's no theme, and it's hard to make any sense of what's going on.

That's how British politics has been all this year. The Brown Government is fundamentally discredited and despised.

But David Cameron's Conservative Opposition seems unable to benefit from this weakness, while the LibDems have disappeared.

There is a reason for this phoniness and sense of unreality - and it is a very worrying one on the political Richter scale. Politicians of all parties have ceased to connect at all to ordinary people.

One cause of this crisis is easy to explain. Leaving aside the ugly squabbling over Northern Rock, the most important Westminster issues over the past few months have not involved genuine argument between the political parties.

Take Derek Conway. He's a well-known Tory MP who misappropriated tens of thousands of pounds of public money - yet neither Gordon Brown nor any ranking Labour MP came forward to attack Conway.

The Prime Minister knew that scores of his own MPs and ministers were doing something very similar, so decided to keep quiet.

David Cameron: The Tory leader is aware of Mutually Assured Destruction

It was just the same when Gordon Brown's two favourite cabinet ministers, Yvette Cooper and her husband Ed Balls, were caught out making tens of thousands of pounds a year by milking the special housing allowance for MPs. Not one Conservative made anything of it.

There is an interesting analogy here. During the Cold War there was a military doctrine known to experts as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

It meant neither Russia nor America would ever unleash a nuclear bomb because they knew the consequences for themselves would be utterly devastating.

In the same way, neither Gordon Brown, David Cameron nor the LibDem leader Nick Clegg will ever seek to attack a rival political leader on sleaze - because they know they are opening themselves up to a lethal response.

MAD worked extremely well throughout the Cold War. Indeed, military historians believe that World War Three never broke out precisely because the consequences were so unpalatable.

Likewise the non-aggression pact between the political parties over sleaze has worked very well for MPs of all persuasions, who have been able to abuse taxpayers' money without fear of being targetted by rivals.

So the system has conspired to encourage greedy and venal politicians, whatever the damage inflicted on Britain's political processes.

The British public are not stupid. They see the Westminster system of Mutually Assured Destruction for what it is: a sordid pact to smile on sleazy and disreputable behaviour.

As a result, our traditional healthy scepticism about politicians has hardened over the past two or three years into a distinctly unhealthy contempt.

The voters see straight through Gordon Brown's corrupt and mostly useless government. They have also concluded that the Conservative opposition is little better - a direct consequence of a key decision Cameron made when he became leader: to enter into the non-aggression pact.

It hobbled Cameron horribly right from the start, and meant that he has been unable to offer the voters an alternative form of government to the one provided by New Labour.

The best that Cameron's Conservatives can deliver is the same sleazy system but with a different collection of faces. His supporters have been astonishingly explicit about this.

Last week, to give just one example, Cameron's highly rated lieutenant, Michael Gove - a man whose high intellect and charm can, unfortunately, be marred on occasions by calamitous misjudgment - chose to remind voters that David Cameron saw himself as the heir to the discredited former prime minister, Tony Blair.

The result is that David Cameron is unable to command the same kind of massive poll leads which Tony Blair enjoyed as opposition leader 15 years ago, because too many people have concluded that he is just another bogus politician on the make.

But in recent weeks, I am told, this problem at last began to dawn on Cameron's advisers. Voters understand, with unnerving clarity, that the real divide in this country is not between Tory and Labour.

Rather it is between a sleazy demi-monde of Westminster politicians (of which Cameron is seen as one of the most prominent members) and ordinary voters. This week, significantly-David Cameron resolved to tap into that deep vein of public revulsion against the self-serving Political Class - and place himself, quite deliberately, outside the corrupt arrangements which have come to define Westminster.

The first sign of this move came at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, when David Cameron chose to ask about the pay and special privileges of MPs serving at Westminster or, as Cameron called it, "this place".

Gordon Brown contemptuously brushed aside these questions.

The Tory leader plans to return, however, to the subject of what he calls our "broken politics" for a second time in his speech to Welsh Conservatives later today.

Mr Cameron deserves nothing but credit for this new strategy. He has perceived, as Gordon Brown and the LibDem leader Nick Clegg so far have not, that the greed of modern British politicians goes straight to the heart of the crisis facing public life in Britain today.

Cameron is also being courageous. He must know that to bring to an end the system of Mutually Assured Destruction, which at present protects corrupt ministers and MPs from political attack, will have very severe consequences.

Fifteen years ago John Major made a valiant effort to link Westminster to the morality of ordinary voters with his so- called Back to Basics initiative. It immediately became apparent that dozens of MPs and ministers failed to live up to the stern personal morality the prime minister sought to encourage.

Cameron will be well aware that the very same problem applies to Westminster sleaze. I have no doubt at all that several members of his shadow cabinet, along with scores of ordinary Tory backbenchers, abuse their expenses in ways which would shock members of the public.

But I am told that David Cameron is prepared to dispense exemplary punishment to those who breach the exacting standards that voters are entitled to expect.

It's worth noting that he has an opportunity to signal his intent straight away. The former chief whip, David Maclean, is the Tory representative on the Commons committee which is at present investigating members' expenses.

This is the same David Maclean who, last year, led a plot to keep MPs' expenses secret by excluding them from the Freedom of Information Act.

No attempt to clean up British public life which involves David Maclean carries an ounce of credibility: Cameron should remove him from the task.

He also needs to take a firmer line on the Speaker - a tragic figure who has come to symbolise the conspiracy of sleazy and bloated Westminster politicians against the British public.

So far, Cameron has supported the orthodoxy that House of Commons procedure makes it impossible to get rid of Michael Martin.

This claim is laughably false. Nothing is easier than to dislodge a Speaker who brings Parliament into disrepute.

Last week, a privy councillor told me that just one Early Day Motion would do the trick. An EDM calling for a vote of confidence in the Speaker would have to be debated, within days, on the floor of the Commons.

Such a course of action would involve huge risks. But the rewards are vast. If David Cameron pursues his mission in a rigorous and thoroughgoing way, he will find himself on the side of the British people against the sleazy Political Class which has done such massive damage to our public life.

And, in doing so, he will end the drift and cynicism that does such damage to our political debate.

Another leader, another broken promise

Nick Clegg continues bitterly to disappoint as LibDem leader.

His biggest mistake so far is his inexplicable decision to side with the Government and refuse to call for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Clegg fought the last election explicitly promising the British people a referendum on this issue. Now he has broken his word.

This week, he staged a pathetic walk-out of his MPs from the Commons after the Speaker refused to allow discussion of a LibDem amendment demanding a referendum, not on the Treaty but on whether we should be in Europe at all.

Not that Clegg wants us out - clearly he believes the Europhiles would win, ending further debate.

The biggest worry about Clegg before becoming leader was his background - both as amember of the European Parliament and also as an official in the private office of Sir Leon Brittan when he was European Commissioner.

Clegg is a fully paid-up Euro fanatic - and this is beginning to show.

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