Notes from the Underground

Just when we thought that the ghastly blood-draining eviscerating horror of the expenses scandal had abated and we parliamentary representatives could breathe easier in our unclaimed for beds, the Maria Miller imbroglio burst about our heads and once again the red dots of the public snipers shone upon us.

In many ways the circumstances around Maria Miller’s claims have the musty scent of history about them as the days of creative accountancy and domestic relocation on this scale really are of the past.

In today’s brave new world the member’s cloakroom resembles the Easy Jet departure hall at Gatwick  as Members search out hotels within the approved price range and travel zone and cast a nostalgic bittersweet glance at the gleaming columns of cabs sweeping past the Palace as the miserable MP heads for the tube remembering when even if they did not dwell in Arcadia they could at least rent a decent studio flat in Kennington.

I’d be the first to admit that the old system was bonkers and, like many of the woes that now assail us, can be laid at the door of the late Baroness Thatcher. Bumping up the exes to compensate for an absence of a headline grabbing pay rise was typical behaviour from a Tory government that claimed to have reduced unemployment by simply reclassifying people as sick.

The same cunning legerdemain was demonstrated in this parliament when thousands of staff in Higher and Further Education were reclassified as private – not public –  sector workers. The subsequent “growth” in the private sector was hailed as a great achievement by the shameless spinners in blue.

People like myself living about twelve miles from Westminster could claim £23,000 pa for a bijoux apartment within the sound of the division bell and we could also furnish it and even score a television with a Sky Sports channel paid for by an appreciative – albeit unknowing – citizenry.

That had to change, and quite right too, but the opprobrium in which we are still held is raw and viscerally painful.

I gave up my car a few years ago as I figured that no-one living and working in London actually needs private transport. My decision was also influenced by the appalling behaviour of one of Britain’s few car manufacturers who sold me a dual fuel vehicle and then announced that it was a ontinued range after two years and was thus impossible to repair.

As it never worked to specification this was unfortunate to say the least and their viduous commitments soon lost any appeal and I slung in the keys with a lightness of heart akin to unshackling a ball and chain.

Commuting on ‘bus and tube has proved to me – if proof were needed – that we Parliamentarians are not loved out there.

Tube journeys on the scenic District Line were once a joy and a clean comfortable seat by the window was readily available and you almost expected a paid up RMT member to spread a crisp damask linen cloth over a well polished table and offer a pot of builder’s for the delectation of the traveller.

That is the land of lost content – I see it shining plain – the happy highway where I went – and cannot come again.

Nowadays I have to endure the pernicious prurience of a group of snap happy scoundrels who subscribe to some loathsome organisation entitled “I Spy MP”.

These toads use their mobile telephones to take pictures of we tireless public servants on the tube and if occasionally we happen to be resting our eyelids or if we are taking a well merited and refreshing snooze then we are drawn to the attention of the wider populace by a technology that I neither understand nor forgive.

Should I be browsing the op ed page of the “Daily Sport” in the spirit of research then I can find myself experiencing that painful process known as “uploading” and when I return – invariably crestfallen – from Craven Cottage wearing my Fulham On Tour (These Colours Don’t Run) top then it is but a matter of moments before some villain snaps the picture and sprays it across the social media universe.

Yet this assault pales when compared to the other forms of behaviour that my colleagues and I suffer.

The general enquiry as to whether I am who my interrogator thinks I am cannot often be batted away by claiming to be my even uglier brother and as sure as Clegg follows Cameron the fellow traveller will bestow his or her brilliance on the recipient and demand a further meeting to go through the intricacies of some hitherto unsuspected conspiracy involving Malaysian Airlines and malevolent aliens in thrall to the Bilderberg Group.

The one statement that is heard on a daily basis is not limited to any particular form of public transport and if I had a pound – even if not twelve sided – for every time I have heard someone boom out “Bet you’re claiming for your fare on expenses” I could have retired to the Maldives and a life disturbed only by constant visits from MPs studying coastal erosion on an arduous fact finding mission.

Dennis MacShane and I were both screamed at on the Jubilee Line once and this was before anyone had accused Dennis of any wrongdoing. The level of vituperation was so intense and aggressive that we were sickened and shaken. I have been punched on several occasions and I no longer even register the verbal assaults.

Through all this I am acutely aware that MPs have brought this on themselves and even those of us who may not have been guilty of the sins of commission or even omission were tacitly complicit on the old corruption and it is down to us to rehabilitate our reputations.

Sadly no-one seems to be willing to take on the stasiarch’s role so the pain will endure and the Miller’s tale will further stoke the flames.

I have to admit that when I knew Maria Lewis (as she then was) back at the LSE in the early ‘80s she was charming and delightful if allied with a group of head bangers called the Federation of Conservative Students who were so far to the right of the soup spoon that Norman Tebbit banned them as too extreme.

Maria stood out from this crew and was even part of the Anti Finklestein Front in which the then champion of the SDP and now Conservative Peer (and exceptionally good columnist on “The Times”) was standing for election as Student Union Sabbatical General Secretary.

As the LSE was something of an SDP stronghold in those days and as the previous incumbent had been elected under that flag of convenience the Labour candidate received unexpected support from the more thoughtful Conservatives as well as an unusual coalition of interests arching from The Catholic Society to the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Spartacists stood aloof from the AFF and the Socialist Workers Students Organisation (known with some justification as SWIZZO) spent so long considering the theoretical consequences of what they feared might be a precursor to state socialism that they all forgot to vote.

Maria never actually said that she had voted for the Labour candidate but when I won – and handsomely – a knowing smile passed between us.

What future Tory luminaries Andrew Cooper and Mark Hoban thought or what passed through the cerebral cranium of then Treasurer and now senior Treasury Civil Servant Keir Hopley is still a matter for conjecture but I thought that Maria Lewis was consensual and refreshingly non partisan.

It is a real shame that she employed such Byzantine domestic mechanisms and I am sure that she knows that what she did was indefensible in the court of public opinion. I feel a scintilla of sympathy for her personally but my over-riding emotion is one of dark despair that yet again MPs are being led to the stocks and the ducking stool.

I wonder if we can claim for a therapist on expenses?