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Monday, June 09, 2008

The "Cameron Rule"

It's always the way. Everything always happens at the same time.

So this week, quite apart from the Irish referendum on Thursday; Stuart Wheeler's Judicial Review today and tomorrow; and the Lords' vote on the referendum on Wednesday; (which will now be conveniently overshadowed by the vote on 42-day detention – news management isn’t dead); not to mention a discussion about what Conservative policy is...

...there is also the ongoing row over MEP's expenses.

The story shows no signs of running out of steam, and various broadcasters and print journalists are on the case. Though the Tory group has felt most of the heat so far, the story seems to be spreading to Lib Dem and Labour MEPs too.

So far simply refusing to say anything at all about their expenses has shielded them from the worst (see previous post). But it won’t stop journalists forever.

Our instinct is that there is a lot more to come out. The rules of the parliament are a nightmare: they neither provide any restriction on clearly immoral behaviour, nor provide MEPs who are trying to do the right thing with any clear sense of what is, or is not, OK.

We think that Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies is right: the answer is very unlikely to come from a change in the rules of the EU Parliament itself, because - as he pointed out on Newsnight - there are enough anti-reform MEPs to block real change. He points out: "The reformers are always voted down"

So perhaps the answer is his suggestion of a cross party code of conduct for at least the UK MEPs to start with.

But why would the party leaders ever sign up to such a thing? Or even propose it?

Well, given that a majority of voters now assume that politicians are "all the same" and all simply "out for what they can get", there would be a clear electoral advantage for any leader who could show that these assumptions are not true. The first mover in cleaning up could have a big advantage and force others to follow suit.

For example, if the rumors are true, Cameron's "Mr Clean" Hugh Thomas will force all Tory MEPs to name their service providers. That would put Labour under a lot of pressure to follow suit. And, as Bruno Waterfield points out, that could expose all kinds of murky goings-on.

So it's interesting that Cameron appears to have set a very high test for members of his party. Cameron said today he would "take away the whip" from any MEP found to have "broken the rules."

Now, that on its own doesn't seem to have such wide implications. Some MEP's who have been accused of abusing their expenses may well not have broken the rules of the Parliament - which are almost non-existent.

The really interesting thing is his comment on GMTV this morning - let's call it the "Cameron Rule":

"We have to be happy that everything we put in place for funding our offices is something that reasonable and practical people would look at and say: 'That's OK."

Now that is a much, much higher bar. The only real question is how high. Guido reports that some in Tory high command would quite like a "bloodbath" in Brussels.


Clearly, the whole MEP expenses story has a long way to go yet, and it may look very different once the dust settles. But we can't help thinking that Cameron's new "reasonable person" test may come to be very important in this whole thing.

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