British expenses scandal spurs celebrities to run for office

A 1980s pop star, a TV presenter, a former Beirut hostage, and a right-wing newspaper columnist are among the high-profile personalities emerging as potential challengers for seats held by discredited MPs.

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LONDON – With trust in politicians at an all-time low amid a scandal about parliamentarians fiddling with expenses, Britain’s political establishment is facing yet another threat to its existence – celebrities.

A 1980s pop star, a television presenter, a former Beirut hostage, and a right-wing newspaper columnist are among the high-profile personalities emerging as potential challengers for seats held by discredited MPs accused of making expenses claims to pay “costs” ranging from extensive home decorations to cleaning a moat and building a duck house in a pond.

In a country not unaccustomed to the impact of celebrity candidates such as California’s “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, the development may already have claimed its first scalp.

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Margaret Moran, an MP for the ruling Labour Party, announced on Thursday that she would step down at the next general election.

Esther Rantzen, a broadcaster who made her name fronting a popular television show championing consumer rights, had threatened to stand against Ms. Moran if she insisted on defending her seat after it was revealed that she had claimed £22,500 ($36,360) in expenses for treating dry rot in a house that was neither in her constituency nor near parliament in London.

Moran's not the only one
Two other MPs who have faced criticism over their expense claims also announced on Thursday they would leave parliament. Conservative MPs Julie Kirkbride and Christopher Fraser said they would step down. Mr. Fraser, who claimed 1,800 pounds ($2,866) in expenses for trees and fencing, said however that his decision was linked to his wife's health rather than his expense claims.

They are just the latest casualties in an affair which has so far seen at least 11 parliamentarians declare that they will step down since the Daily Telegraph began publishing details of the leaked expenses claims three weeks ago.

“I was inspired by sheer rage,” says Ms. Rantzen, who may run as a candidate. “I spent 40 years or more as a journalist and broadcaster and during that time I have thought about getting involved in our parliamentary system but could not find a single party whose manifesto I could swallow whole. Now I feel that there is a real and important role for independent members of parliament because of the scandalous abuse of taxpayer’s money.”

Former captives, pop stars, and (gasp) editors, oh my!
While Rantzen is the most high profile of the mavericks threatening to shake up the political establishment, others include Terry Waite, who was held captive in Lebanon between 1987 and 1991 after going there as an envoy for the Church of England in a bid to negotiate the release of other hostages.

Another potential independent candidate is David Van Day, one half of a 1980s pop duo called Dollar who was angered after hearing conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, accuse the press of carrying out “McCarthy-ite witch hunts” and indicate that pressure over the scandal might cause MPs to consider killing themselves.

In addition, an associate editor of the Daily Telegraph has said he might challenge a senior MPs exposed by the newspaper after using his parliamentary allowances to pay for 12,000 pounds worth of gardening at his country home.

Simon Heffer, a frequent critic from the right of the Conservative Party’s current moderate leadership, used his column to deliver an ultimatum on Wednesday to Alan Haselhurst, the deputy speaker of the House of Commons, that he would run against him unless he apologized, repaid the money, and promised “to behave.”

Can the independents gain traction?
But despite the sudden emergence of high profile non-aligned candidates, Britain remains a relatively partisan society in which the major parties continue to prosper compared to other European countries such as Ireland, according to Professor John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.

He added that independents have been on the wane during elections at the town hall and local level over many years years but pointed out that current crop of would-be MPs had a role to play in the current national controversy even by just announcing that they were considering standing.

“By simply threatening to stand they cause the parties to respond, and in the case of Esther Rantzen, she has had the effect of helping to flush out Margaret Moran,” Mr. Curtice says.

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