Heard the joke about how many politicians it takes to change a light bulb?
In Britain, voters are less than amused after finding out that the answer seems to be "one," albeit with the help of a team of workmen whose home repair jobs for the same member of Parliament were funded by the taxpayer to the tune of more than $3,000.
The snippet of information is part of a stream of revelations in recent days that have lifted the lid on the culture of manipulation of expense accounts by Britain's political elite and caused deep damage to the reputation of the so-called Mother of all Parliaments.
"This has done enormous damage," says Jonathan Tonge, a professor of political science at Liverpool University. "It also happens to have come at a particularly bad time, when so many people are struggling to make ends meet."
The details on expense claims lodged by members of Parliament (MPs) have been published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper in recent days. The stories are making a mockery of many MPs' attempts to convince voters that they are sharing some of the pain of the recession.
Those tainted by the scandal include a Conservative MP, Douglas Hogg, who lodged expenses claims of £2,000 ($3,025) for the cost of cleaning of a moat around his country estate – not exactly the type of thing that helps his party in its ongoing efforts to jettison an image of being a bastion of the upper classes.
The light bulb gag was inspired by another Conservative MP, David Willets, who billed the taxpayers more than £115 ($174) for workmen to replace 25 light bulbs at his second home in London. The MP, who is nicknamed "two brains" because of his intellect, and who acts as his party's spokesman on innovation and skills, charged another £80 ($121) to "change lights in bathroom," as part of a £2,191.38 ($3,318) invoice for odd tasks that included cleaning a shower head.
From the governing Labour Party, Kitty Ussher, currently a minister overseeing reform of housing benefits for the public, carried out a £20,000 pound ($30,000) makeover of her London home soon after she was first elected, despite already having lived there for five years.
Others lodged claims for gardening and various other costs that were supposedly sustained as a result of their duties as MPs. However, the most damaging revelations relate to MPs who used their parliamentary perks to carry out major refurbishments to properties that were then sold on at a profit.
Damage control begins
Amid a public outcry, parties are rushing to say sorry.
The Conservatives said Tuesday that their MPs would pay back thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money, while a Labour Party government minister, Hazel Blears, said she will repay £13,332 ($20,150) that she claimed for tax on a house she sold.
But the impact on public confidence in politics has already been made.
Mark Garnett from Lancaster University, who specializes in the study of British political culture, says the expenses controversy is unprecedented.
"Obviously we've had major scandals in the past, such as the selling of peerages to the House of Lords in the early part of the last century by the then-prime minister, Lloyd George. But this is unique, for three reasons. First, hardly anyone in the House of Commons is untainted. Even those who haven't tried to make a profit from the system have claimed for items which were not strictly necessary for the conduct of their duties."
The second reason this scandal is unique is rooted in a "far more intrusive and disrespectful" news media, Professor Garnett says. "For more than a decade, it has taken delight in pulling down individual politicians, and the chance to put the whole lot of them in the pillory is a dream come true.
"Third, this scandal comes after a series of developments which have eroded public confidence in politicians. Not least of these is the rise and fall of 'New' Labour, which promised to clean up politics and has presided over a series of unsavory incidents. But the climate of economic gloom makes the idea of greedy MPs even more intolerable to most voters."
Stormy skies for Gordon Brown
The affair is also the latest hammer blow to the already under siege premiership of Gordon Brown, who as prime minister has staggered from one travail to another following a high point earlier this year when he hosted the Group of 20 summit.
The three main parties have failed to agree on a method of reforming the expense system, but Prime Minister Brown has been particularly damaged by perceived fumbling on the issue after he laid out a series of proposals recently on a YouTube video clip, only to withdraw them later. He crossed swords on the expenses issue Wednesday with the Conservative's media-savvy young leader David Cameron, who has been humbling the Labour Party leader on a regular basis during their parliamentary duels.
"Isn't it time for us to see ourselves as the rest of the country see us? How can we bring about change that the country needs if we cannot change ourselves," said Cameron, to loud cheers from his MPs,
Struggling to make himself heard at times amid heckling by Conservative MPs, a tired-looking Brown said that politicians had to prove themselves "worthy of the public trust" and said that the allowances system must be reconstructed to ensure transparency.
Brown, who is in serious trouble ahead of a general election due by June 2010, now faces the prospect of a leadership coup by his despairing followers. His predicament was underlined in a poll published over the weekend in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, which put support for the Labour Party at just 23 percent, the lowest rating the party has recorded since such surveys were first carried out in 1943. A separate poll for the tabloid News of the World on Sunday showed that 68 percent of Britons thought the expenses scandal had directly hurt the prime minister.
A boon for the far right?
Some individuals stand to gain from the furor, however. They include the leaker, who is thought to have sold the expenses data to the Daily Telegraph. The newspaper has declined to comment on suggestions that it engaged in "cheque book journalism" by paying for the information. But one of its competitors, the Times newspaper, reported last month that it was approached in March by a businessman who offered the records for £300,000 ($450,000).
On wider scale, analysts warn that one of the biggest winners could the Far Right British National Party (BNP). It currently has no MPs at the Westminster Parliament, and is ostracized from the political mainstream because of its racist message – only whites, for instance, are allowed to be members – but is now poised to make a breakthrough at elections next month for the European Parliament, which sits in Brussels and includes representatives from across the European Union.
Toby Helm, a veteran British political journalist who works for the Observer, a national newspaper, says that one of the most striking things about the expenses scandal "is that there seemed to have been a collective agreement between MPs in order to keep this secret for so long."
"Public anger cannot be underestimated, and with the European elections just weeks away, it could have major implications in terms of potentially increasing the votes of smaller parties – such as the BNP. They are in a position to make the type of breakthrough that the far right has never made before in British politics."
"In the long run though, the fact these details are finally out in the open has to be a good thing though. It might just mean that the political culture finally becomes transparent in a way that people can have trust in."