No Expenses Spared by Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner
|No Expenses Spared by Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: The story behind the story of the MPs' expenses scandal. Well told and as exciting as many a thriller. Definitely recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: September 2009|
It's always struck me as strange that in a period of twelve months which saw Banks collapse, stock markets tumble and house prices slide the public have reserved most of their ire for a relatively small group of people who were not exceptionally well-paid in the first place, but many of whom took the opportunity to make the most of the generous expenses which they could claim. There are only six hundred and forty six Members of Parliament – twelve months ago they were generally respected but many are now pariahs.
The question of MPs' expenses had been bubbling under the surface for some time. Applications had been made under the Freedom of Information Act for details to be made public, but many MPs and the Speaker of the House of Commons, George Martin, in particular had fought hard to avoid this. Eventually it was agreed that some details would be published, but dates came and went and it seemed obvious that the public was going to be none-the-wiser at the end of the exercise.
And then, by one of those coincidences of fate two opposing ends of the expenditure scale were brought into shocking contrast. Soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are provided with body protectors and other 'armour', but much of it is out-dated and there's often not enough to go around. What is provided for the UK soldiers is nowhere near as good as that provided for their American counterparts and it's often safer to abandon the protective clothing if you need to make a quick escape. Kevlar body protectors can be bought, but they're expensive and soldiers often take jobs in their leave to earn enough money to buy the protection they need. Two soldiers formed the security detail for the office in which the MPs' expenses claims were being redacted – sensitive details were being blacked out before publication.
What was obvious was that the MPs didn't stint themselves and many claimed up to the limit for everything they could manage. The contrast was obvious to everyone working there – and one person (not, we are assured, one of the soldiers) was in a position to leak the material in its raw state.
For the majority of people who watched the stories appear in the Daily Telegraph it all seemed surreal. Surely it couldn't be true? Unfortunately it was – and the unfolding events saw the forced resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons, the resignation of several Cabinet Ministers and it's still difficult to see how Gordon Brown survived.
Most of us only became aware of the magnitude of the problem as it unfolded firstly in the Telegraph and then in the wider media, but there was, of course, a considerable back story before it reached that stage. Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner were involved from the beginning.
No Expenses Spared (a delightful double entendre) is first and foremost the story behind the story – how the information came to be leaked in the first place and the how it came into the hands of the Telegraph. Other papers, you see, wanted to use the information to attack politicians of one or other party but were not prepared to show that politicians from all parties were equally at fault. It's ironic that the Telegraph, for so long known as the Torygraph should be the one prepared to bring everything out into the open. It wasn't without its risks and all the journalists involved were aware that they ran considerable risks in terms of possible police attention.
The story behind the story is well-told. Occasionally it is a little self-congratulatory but then that's permissible when you've broken the story which changed the face of British politics. It does bring out the stress which the journalists who were working on the story had to endure: before the expenses scandal accusations of impropriety against an MP would be worked on over a period of days or weeks – now ten could well be done in the course of a day, but the pressure for accuracy and to ensure that no really confidential details were disclosed could never let up. This all comes across well – read the book and you can smell the atmosphere in the room where the work was done.
If you're wanting the salacious details of what the MPs had been up to then you might be better trawling through the newspapers of the time. The facts are all there in the book and it will be adequate for most purposes, but there was more in the papers at the time. Personally I thought that the newspaper coverage was overkill and much preferred the more succinct version in the book. It's very good at showing the timeline of what happened and showing how the ripples spread outward. Particularly enlightening is the contrasting ways in which Gordon Brown and David Cameron dealt with the problem.
Many books of this type are deadly dull. No Expenses Spared is far from that. Despite knowing how it all worked out I read it with as much excitement as I've read many a thriller – and probably just as quickly.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
For more reportage we can recommend The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain by Ian Jack and The Broken Compass: How British Politics lost its way by Peter Hitchens.
No Expenses Spared by Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.
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