Members of the British Parliament are having to regulate their own financial activities. Political leaders have been busy making apologies, writing checks and calling for reform. All this comes as a London newspaper has been publishing the expense reports of the lawmakers.
The revelations about expenses in the London Daily Telegraph could almost have been comical if the issue hadn't been so serious. Members of Parliament of the ruling Labour Party claimed things like dog food, bath robes and rug cleaning, while Conservative Party MPs put in for things such as chandeliers and tennis court repairs. One former minister claimed for the cost of cleaning the moat around his country home. Perhaps the most bizarre was a claim for several sacks of horse manure.
Realizing he was up to his knees in a metaphorical pile of the stuff, Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Parliament on Wednesday made every effort to sound contrite:
"I have myself refused the pension that is able to be given to any serving Prime Minister and refused to take it. And I have myself refused the London allowance that is available to me. I think all members of the House have got to look at what they can do in their own situations."
That wasn't good enough for the leader of the opposition Conservative Party David Cameron who has ordered his colleagues to pay back any dubious claims. Despite the revelation that he himself had claimed nearly $1,000 to have the wisteria cleared from the chimney at his home.
Isn't it time to wake up and see what's going on in the country?," Cameron asked. "Isn't it time for us to see ourselves as the rest of the country sees us? Isn't it time to stop the talking, stop the endless committees, and start showing some real leadership to deliver some real change? How can we bring about the change the country needs if we cannot change ourselves?"
The heart of the problem is that MPs, who are paid roughly $100,000 a year, work at Westminster in London, but generally live with their families in their constituencies. So they receive an allowance of about $30,000 for furniture, accessories, repairs and mortgage interest relief for a second home.
The accusation is that they have used the expense claims on their second home as an alternative income stream to pay for gardeners, chandeliers, dog food, wine and horse manure. Several MPs, most notably a senior member of Gordon Brown's cabinet, have been accused of changing the designation of their second home. That's a practice known as flipping, so that the allowance can then be applied to another property.
The reports are particularly damaging at a time when Britain is suffering its worst recession since World War Two. The scandal has not gone down well with the public and local party activists.
"I think it's intolerable," says Ray Graham, a Tory Party chairman of Ruislip and Northam Conservative Association.
"It certainly makes life very difficult for the likes of me out on the door steps when I'm trying to persuade people to take an interest in politics, especially the younger element, when they can turn around and throw this at one."
There are now moves to rapidly reform the expense system. Although the anger is aimed at all parties, observers say it is the opposition Conservatives who are likely to come out of it better, partly because the Labor Party has been in power for 12 years.
A recent poll showed support for Labour at a record low of only 23 percent, against 45 percent for the Conservatives, with a general election due to be called by the middle of next year.
Political commentators are talking of a reverse of the 1997 election. That's when Conservative politicians were swept from power by Tony Blair's Labour Party landslide victory.