“How do you know that a politician is lying?” goes the old musical hall joke. “Their lips move…”
Croydon South’s absentee MP, Richard Ottaway, the avid expenses claimer who went sailing at Cowes in the week of the London riots, must be getting dizzy from the U-turns he has performed over his own future.
In 2009, when under the cosh over the public money he had spent on a £5,000 bed from Harrod’s, some light bulbs and gardening work, he was forced to promise his constituency party that this would be his final term in parliament.
Yet earlier this year, Ottaway’s Tory colleague Gavin Barwell was suggesting publicly that Tricky Dicky had had a change of mind about his future as an MP.
As recently as last week, Ottaway was telling friends that he might yet run for Parliament in 2015.
But yesterday at a meeting of his local party, Ottaway said he wanted to spend more time with his family and enjoying his hobbies and so would stand down as the MP in 2015. Ahh, the delightful irony from the MP that lives outside his constituency and abandoned Croydon at the time of its darkest crisis in favour of a boating jaunt.
Enoblement to Lord Bletchingley and a 16,000 majority safe seat for Boris Johnson may not be unconnected.
It may also be that Ottaway’s latest announcement was forced upon him because it has also been made very clear that his party association members will not have allowed him to get away with breaking that 2009 promise. Ottaway was forced to make that concession three years ago over his troublesome parliamentary expenses. It was a difficult meeting, where former senior police officer David Osland and former councillor Anna Hawkins were frank in their views about the expenses.
When the Daily Torygraph revealed the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, Ottaway was highlighted for claiming for expenditure that had little to do with his direct parliamentary duties. Having had his wife Nicky conveniently on his paid MP’s staff, Ottaway claimed £4,050 for part of a Harrod’s bed (a claim later repaid). Like David Cameron and his public money paid for wysteria cuttings, Ottaway also took more than £2,000 of public money for gardening work on his second home, including repairing a tractor tyre and putting a scarifier right. Oh, and for hiring a chimney sweep, too.
The statement issued by the Croydon South Conservatives did its best to blame the system rather than the perpetrator of the offence. “Richard Ottaway has apologised to constituents for his part in allowing an indefensible system of allowances to develop,” they said. “He shares the local party’s view that MPs should act honestly and decently. We expect MPs to live by the same rules and standards as those they wish to represent. No MP is above the law.”
Croydon’s Tories ought to have known better, because Ottaway had long had form for breaking promises to his constituency.
Although 20 years ago, Ottaway promised at his initial selection that he would live in the constituency. Yet he chose instead to live away from the great unwashed of Croydon, moving in to the Surrey village of Bletchingley instead. He claimed for this property as his second home under parliamentary expenses.
Ottaway was fortunate to return to parliament in 1992, parachuted into Croydon by the Tories after losing after one term representing Nottingham North. That year marked a trough in property prices, and Ottaway was able, like many MPs, to take advantage of the option provided of speculating in the housing market. The ability of MPs in Greater London to claim housing monies was voted out in the last Parliament. MPs now have to rent rather than buy second homes, so taking away the opportunity for huge capital gains from the mortgage support that existed in the past.
There is speculation that Ottaway is making way in Croydon South for Boris Johnson, despite the London Mayor’s insistence that he’ll see out his term at City Hall until 2016, although there are expected to be parliamentary elections in May 2015. Unless or until he is an MP, Johnson is unable to challenge his former Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon Club chum, David Cameron, for the leadership of the Tory party.
For Johnson, who before he became London Mayor was MP for the wealthy Oxfordshire seat of Henley, the Croydon South seat is a safe one even after possible boundary changes.
Croydon South Conservatives certainly deserve better than they have had in their last two MPs. Sir William Clark paid only occasional visits to Croydon and Ottaway took the view that the seat sent him to Westminster not to be an MP actively involved in Croydon affairs. He took a light-touch approach to matters Croydon. His decision to go sailing at Cowes straight after the 8/8 riots drew criticism.
His country county-set attire seemed to be rather out of tune with Croydon’s more urban style. He was regarded by many in the Commons as a man who over-estimated his own rather limited capabilities.
Only when David Davis no longer looked like winning the Conservative party leadership did Ottaway changed his allegiance to David Cameron. Being seen as Cameron’s candidate for the chairmanship of the Tories’ back-benchers’ 1922 Committee, at a time when the Tory leader tried to neuter the already modest powers of that committee, saw Ottaway snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, losing to Graham Brady MP for the influential role.
Nevertheless Ottaway secured ample compensation in being elected chairman of the foreign affairs select committee – he will no doubt miss the role’s status and international travel.
Ottaway tends to be a sceptic about the government’s policy in the Middle East, a view likely now to be further buttressed by the employment of Old Paulina and ex-Sadvertiser journalist Aline Nassif who is of a Lebanese Christian background and who will advise on foreign affairs.
Other Croydon seats have had stars like John Moore and Bernard Weatherill, so in a Croydon South seat that offers electoral security Conservatives would want to find a future or current senior politician. Johnson fits that role. London Assembly Member and Kenley councillor Steve “Britain’s most overpaid councillor” O’Connell clearly does not.
Suggestions that Johnson would undertake a dual mandate at City Hall and for Croydon South in parliament is unhelpful to local Conservatives and the Croydon Sadvertiser, who appear to be working together in trying to make an issue out of a possible dual job for Labour’s Val Shawcross in the London Assembly and as MP for Croydon North – despite Shawcross having declared from the start of her campaign that she would not seek to multi-task and fail to properly serve her constituents (something which O’Connell daily demonstrates more than capably).
Inside Croydon‘s sources at yesterday’s Croydon Conservative Association meeting were unable to help on one final matter of Ottaway’s accountability. In 2009, when forced to face the music about his expenses, Ottaway had also promised that he would in future be a good boy and publish his parliamentary expenses on his own website. He spoke about openness and honesty.
Yet four months following the May 2010 election, Ottaway had failed to honour that part of his promise to be a reformed character. There were no exes claims on his website.
Shamed into action, subsequently he must have got some minion to post links to the House of Commons website, leaving it to his constituents to ferret through the expenses claims of more than 600 MPs to try to find out how their own MP had been spending their money.
And now? Three years after Ottaway said sorry and promised not to be a naughty boy over expenses again, the section about his expenses claims has been banished from his website altogether. Not even anything as modest as a link to the official parliament website.
Anyone would think that his expenses claims were an embarrassment to Lord Bletchingley.
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