Here’s what should have happened (well, actually, what should have happened is that the Lib Dems should have collectively published their expenses months ago, but in the absence of that…) and in what order:
1. Clegg to apologise and arrange for all affected MPs to make reparations – tick.
2. Clegg to commit party to return second home capital gains to taxpayer – tick.
3. Clegg to follow Cameron in committing to all MPs publishing expenses online from today onwards, starting asap – STILL OUTSTANDING
4. As a result of (3), Clegg to call on Cameron to follow him with regard to step (2).
5. a. Chris Rennard to prove to satisfaction of all that he does live in Eastbourne as his main residence, or, failing that
b. Clegg to sack him immediately from post and consider, possibly by involving the party as a whole, whether he should retain the whip – STILL OUTSTANDING.
6. This resolved, Clegg to call for the Speaker to resign – tick.
7. Clegg to follow up this call by calling for full constitutional reform – tick.
You see, I hope, my difficulty with what has happened in the last few days. This has the basic shape of the strongest narrative yet created by the Liberal Democrats – the best chance we’ll ever have to push the total constitutional and electoral reform the system so desperately needs as a popular issue. Preliminary examination of the figures over at Mark Reckons suggest that there may be a correlation between the safeness of a seat and the likelihood that the incumbent is up to no good. Well, that’s not difficult to explain.
Clegg has, this morning, become the first politician in modern history not only to call for the sacking of the Speaker, but for a written constitution. The former is a gambit that paves the way for the latter, and the latter has the potential to be little less than a revolution. If Clegg can make this work over the next few days, we are in “we dare not fail” territory. But a couple of critical steps in my little list are still missing.
Those missing steps happen to be the ones that matter most to Ordinary People, as distinct from the political la-la land occupied by the Westminster Village, the media and the blogosphere. Ordinary People couldn’t give a flying damn what happens to some old bloke in a black lace dress. Ordinary People want apologies, humiliation, revenge, reparation and the delivery of anything – anything – that might remain unconfessed. Only then might they be prepared to listen – until then, even the most startlingly radical proposals, even the most iconoclastic of bold moves will only be greeted like more of the same.
If the missing steps are taken, then I believe there’s no limit to what we can do, now that Clegg has seized the media agenda by calling on the Speaker to resign. Any Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells who has pledged their vote to UKIP this week may not care overmuch for the nuances of parliamentary convention, but they must surely to see the merits in sweeping away the current electoral system in favour of the one that’s going to enable minority parties to do even better.
If Clegg won’t prioritise step 3, the Federal Executive meeting on Monday must force it on his attention. And Clegg must work out what to do about Chris Rennard. Because if he really is, as the evidence suggests, living in London and claiming he lives in Eastbourne, then it’s not a question of if he has to be defenestrated, but when. All Clegg will get to choose is the when. If he can carry the reform torch as full-bloodedly as his actions today suggest, then it would be a crying shame if he trips up on a Rennard-shaped revelation just as he’s starting to get the point across.
The rewards if Clegg can get this right are potentially enormous, not so much for the party per se, which is as mired in the scandal as the other two, as for democracy itself. This is as it should be. Labour and the Tories will always block attempts at root and branch parliamentary reform because they benefit from the status quo – we know that. It was always going to have to be us, whether we expected to profit by it in the polls or not. And the cause for reform will never have popular opinion there for the taking like this again.