by Kevin Meagher
No-one should take any pleasure in witnessing Chris Huhne’s public defenestration. A sequence of events that clearly spun out of control has cost a cabinet minister and plausible contender to succeed Nick Clegg his career, his seat and just possibly his liberty.
His resignation from parliament as he awaits sentencing for perverting the course of justice is not just a humiliating end to his political life but a personal tragedy. All the more so for his children and family, doubly victims given the disputatious end of his marriage to Vicky Pryce. But British politics has two abiding characteristics which are up in neon lighting for all to see today: there is little sympathy for the fallen and attention immediately focuses on who benefits from another’s misfortune.
So talk turns to the pending Eastleigh by-election, the prospects of UKIP’s Nigel Farage if he chooses to stand and the implications for the coalition if the Conservatives mount a full throttle campaign to snatch the seat. But there are other consequences our rubber-necking politicians and hacks should pause and reflect on.
The career path of a growing number of our parliamentarians now ends in the most brutal ignominy; a public shaming in court and a custodial sentence. On a human level, this is awful for anyone. Collectively, it scuttles public trust in our governing class.
“All political careers end in failure” remarked Enoch Powell, but there is something of a difference between failing to reach the cabinet and spending your time in a ten foot by eight foot cell, as a growing list of former parliamentarians can attest.
David Chaytor, Elliot Morley, Jim Devine, Eric Illsley and Margaret Moran were convicted of fraud relating to their expenses. Denis MacShane awaits his fate from a fresh police investigation after the parliamentary standards committee excoriated him over his expenses, forcing him to quit his Rotherham seat last November.
Meanwhile former immigration minister Phil Woolas was stripped of his Oldham seat for breaches of the Representation of the People Act in 2010 after a bruising re-election campaign against his Lib Dem opponent. All of them were mainstream figures, yet most found themselves ostracised by former colleagues who were simply glad it wasn’t them in the eye of the storm.
But who’s to say it won’t be them next time?
Those convicted during the expenses scandal in 2009 had hooky paperwork which incriminated them. Yet, scores of other MPs who trousered far bigger payments for equally morally dubious claims got away with paying something back and moving on, or simply quit at the last election.
If a moral philosopher rather than an investigating police officer had run the rule over MPs claims, HMP Pentonville would have been bulging at the seams.
Despite this, today’s class of politicians are no worse than previous generations. Most in fact are a good deal better. All are fallible. Some even deserve our sympathy – even at just a human level – for the messes that they get themselves in.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut