Before the excitement about expenses, I watched a three hour opposition day debate on the Inquiry at Stafford Hospital. This gave lots of opportunity to study the debating style of Bill Cash. Debates are structured. The front bench get a turn, then the speaker tries to give fair time to the backbench MPs. The speaker warned that backbench time would be limited to 15 minutes each.
In Parliament an MP can make an “intervention.” The MP can ask whoever is speaking, “Will you give way”. Most MPs do. Most MPs are also sparing about the number of interventions they make. In this debate David Kidney intervened briefly to say he intended voting against the Government. Bill Cash made lots of long interventions. A lot of these were about the large number of individuals and organisations he felt should be questioned by an Inquiry.
The time taken by this meant that backbenchers were left with only 10 minutes each; far less than they needed to make their points. Mr Cash continued to intervene until it was clear that people would no longer give way, at which point he resorted to “points of order”. The speaker was firm. This was an abuse of the rules and was not allowed.
I think Mr Cash is a clever man. He is a confident speaker. He understands the rules perfectly and has no hesitation in using them. I think he enjoys this. I was left wondering if Mr Cash and the pressure group he has been guiding so carefully, understand the inquiry in quite the same way. Might the hospital and the group be pawns in a more complex game?
Bill Cash’s expenses claims also appear pretty complex. This is something that both David Cameron and Bill Cash have admitted. Mr Cash took good care to “check” with the fees office at each stage of the game. Mr Cash’s response to Jeremy Paxman about all this was interesting. “What is lawful is appropriate”. Mr Cash is very keen for us to see all the facts clearly laid out. I am certain he will have broken no rules, but we might still be left wondering how much the taxpayer will have contributed to his valuable London flat, his daughters start on the property ladder , assistance with her political career, his son’s accommodation, and his wife’s employment. Some people will feel this is hard to justify.
I actually do have real sympathy with anyone caught up in this. It is not a pleasant business, and it is pretty arbitrary where the attention falls. Where Mr Cash has been a little slow is in recognising how his arrangements may seem to other people. This is not surprising. I was born into a Conservative household myself. I understand the drive to make the most of opportunities and to take care of the family first. You cannot overturn deeply engrained values overnight.
I am sure he must also wonder why he is getting limited support from other MPs. It may be that after 25 years of his combative debating style his colleagues now feel he is out of time.
I think that when new rules are drawn up to regulate MPs expenses, they have to be robust enough to deal with the fact that there are always going to be some people who will understand the rules perfectly and test them to their limit.