British MP’s Behaving Badly: When Appearances Trump the Rules

Posted 10.14.2009

I’ve been in London this week for a presentation I gave to a group of new executives yesterday. It’s been a great trip with a lot of friendly people and fascinating things to see. One of the things I really enjoy when travelling abroad is immersing myself in the local media to learn what the big stories are and how people think about them.

Well, the story that’s dominating the UK’s headlines and airwaves this week is a controversy over how members of Parliament used their expense accounts for items like housekeeping, gardening and, in one infamous case, the digging of a moat. Sounds sort of outrageous doesn’t it?  The back story, as my cab driver explained it to me the other day, is that when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister she wanted to give a pay raise to the MP’s but knew that wouldn’t fly with the public. So, instead, she adjusted the expense reimbursement schedule for MP’s so it was much more liberal and ended up significantly supplementing their incomes.  That was all going along swimmingly for the past 20 years or so until earlier this year when the husband of the Home Secretary watched a couple of porn movies on the family telly and the cable bill was submitted for reimbursement under the MP expense plan. You can probably figure out what happened next.

Gravytrain2 So, that brought us to this past Monday which was the first day of the new session of Parliament and my last day in London before heading out to the suburbs to give my presentation. I was taking one last walk around the Thames and was crossing Westminster Bridge adjacent to Parliament when I took the following photos with my iPhone. For those of you who didn’t have little boys at home in the last 20 years, you’re looking at a life size version of that really useful engine, Thomas the Tank Engine.

In case you can’t make it out, the passenger car is carrying 3 or 4 people holding prime minister Gordon Brown masks in front of their face. The sign across the top of the car reads, “All Aboard the Gravy Train.”  As the Brits might say, “Simply brilliant!”


The story has come back with a vengeance this week because as the MP’s returned to Westminster they were presented with letters detailing how much they each need to repay the government for expenses now deemed inappropriate. The PM and the conservative party leader are trying to enforce the repayments but there a lot of members who are pushing back saying that they operated within the existing rules at the time and shouldn’t be on the hook for the money. 

With Thomas the Tank Engine, moats and dirty movies on TV, this story has a lot of comic elements but there’s a serious lesson in all of this.

What’s amazing to me is that many of the MP’s are putting a few hundred or a few thousand pounds ahead of their long term credibility, reputation and effectiveness. They are becoming a laughing stock while they argue over expenses that seem hugely inappropriate to the average citizen. And that is what leaders really have to watch out for. It’s easy to get into a bubble when you’re a leader and pretty soon the abnormal begins to seem normal. One of the executive speakers in the session I spoke to yesterday summed it up really well. There are, he said, rules and there are appearances. There are times when the appearances matter more than the rules. True leaders understand the difference. When the rules you’re following wouldn’t stand up to a smell test with the average person, it’s time to take a step back and upgrade the rules. When it’s all said and done, the most valuable currency a leader has is integrity and credibility.  Maintaining that currency requires an understanding that it’s more valuable in the long run than currency of the paper sort.