Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

Cameron steps up expenses row

By Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent

Up until now the prevailing wisdom has been that all parties have suffered equally from the expenses scandal.

David Cameron
Mr Cameron has spotted an opportunity on expenses

MPs from across the spectrum have seen their allowance claims splashed across the front pages and the public has, in effect, said: "A plague on all your houses."

The party leaders have done public penance and vowed to clean up the system, and numerous bodies have been established and have reported on how best to do it.

But David Cameron has now tried to inject some straightforward party politics into the mix by accusing the prime minister of putting his own political interests before that of the public.

Expressed horror

In a stinging personal attack, Mr Cameron also accuses the prime minister of tolerating "the disgusting sight" of Labour MPs trying to use parliamentary privilege to avoid going through the criminal justice system.

The MPs say they are not "trying to avoid culpability or seek immunity, but simply seeking to determine the correct forum in which to make our case".

To be fair to ministers, they have expressed horror at the idea that parliamentary privilege could be used by anyone to avoid criminal prosecution, and both the home secretary and the leader of the House of Commons (herself a QC) have said so publicly.

So where is the row?

If David Cameron can tip the seesaw ever so slightly in his direction on expenses, then the electoral advantage could be significant

Well Mr Cameron has seen an opportunity - a small chink in the armour - and he is taking a chance and going for it.

Pre-briefing of the Tory leader's speech indicated he would attack Labour for not withdrawing the whip from the three Labour MPs facing charges.

But just before Mr Cameron stood up, Labour did just that, something the Tories now see as a victory.

It is a pattern the Tories like. Steal a march on the PM by moving quickly, then attack him for being slow over punishing wrongdoing and standing in the way of reform.

Duck house

Labour has already countered this by sending out details of parliamentary debates last year they claim demonstrate the Tories stood in the way of clarifying the issue of privilege.

But this is an important development. If David Cameron can tip the seesaw ever so slightly in his direction on expenses, then the electoral advantage could be significant.

There are of course risks. Try to take too much of the high ground and people will remind the Tory leader it was his MPs who tried to claim for a duck house and moat cleaning.

And do not forget, they might say, John Major's back-to-basics fiasco. So Mr Cameron has to fashion the difference in terms of how each party leader has responded to the scandal, rather than trying to argue: "Our guys are purer than yours."

Meanwhile the Lib Dems have continued to accuse both main parties of standing in the way of reform, not just of expenses but also of party funding.

Ironically, of all the main parties, they have escaped with the fewest scars in terms of specific wrongdoing, but have shied away from making too much of this, presumably on the basis that you just do not know what is around the corner.

Whatever the outcome of the current row over privilege, Mr Cameron seems keen to turn expenses into a full-blown election issue and challenge the voters to pass judgment on which party emerges, if not smelling of roses, then the least damaged.

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