Alistair Darling was a classic “flipper” – making four separate second home designations covering three different properties in the space of as many years.
That meant that when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2007 and moved into a grace-and-favour flat in Downing Street, he did not miss out on lucrative, taxpayer-funded second-home allowances.
The biggest shock came two weeks into the expenses scandal, when it emerged that Mr Darling had charged the taxpayer for the cost of working out his complicated financial affairs, putting his accountant’s fees on his office allowance.
Flipping between his various properties obviously caused something of a headache for the Chancellor, leading to a number of errors in his expenses claims.
He charged the taxpayer for bills relating to his London flat after he had moved out and was renting it to a tenant. The flat had been bought, renovated and furnished with the help of his second-home allowances.
Amid widespread public anger at Mr Darling’s expenses, Vince Cable, the usually measured Liberal Democrat economics spokesman, accused the Chancellor of having been “caught with his fingers in the till”. He added: “His moral authority has vanished. He must go, now.”
The furore led to speculation that Mr Darling would be moved out of the Treasury, amid reports that Gordon Brown was keen to replace him with his staunch ally Ed Balls.
But the Chancellor refused to go quietly, and in a sign of the Prime Minister’s weakness following the resignation of a number of ministers, he was allowed to remain in his post.
Mr Darling’s labyrinthine living arrangements date back to 2004, when, along with all ministers, he was required by the rules at the time to designate London as his place of residence. He rented a flat in the capital from a former Labour MP who had become a peer while claiming second-home expenses on the house in his constituency of Edinburgh South West, which he had owned with his wife, Maggie, since 1998.
As Transport Secretary in the run-up to the 2005 general election, he spent £10,910 in mortgage interest payments on the Scottish property, along with £2,250 for food and £2,556 on council tax and water bills.
Less than a year after the rules were changed, allowing ministers to choose for themselves where they wanted to consider their main residence, he bought a flat near the Oval cricket ground in south London for £226,000. He put the costs of stamp duty and legal fees on the taxpayer. This became his designated second home, and he began claiming the £900 mortgage interest payments on it. He told the Commons fees office that he wanted the Scottish house to be considered his main residence.
The cost of furnishing and carpeting the flat followed, at a cost to the taxpayer of £950, which he claimed along with a chaise longue, sofa, an oven mitt and other household items, including a 75p Ikea carrier bag.
After two years, Mr Darling was promoted to Chancellor, a post which comes with a grace and favour flat in Downing Street, and this became his new “second home” while he rented out his own flat.
With most costs of the grace-and-favour flat already provided by the taxpayer, the new Chancellor’s claims were now limited to food, for which he charged £300 a month. That meant his expenses were dramatically lower than they had previously been.
Early last year, he “flipped” for a final time, designating Downing Street as his main residence and the Edinburgh house as his second home once again. There he claimed about £950 a month in mortgage interest, as well as council tax.
Apart from a “benefit in kind” tax bill, which all ministers must pay for grace-and-favour apartments, Mr Darling was spared all the normal costs of running a home that ordinary taxpayers are required to provide out of their own pockets. Along with a number of other ministers, it emerged that Mr Darling had recovered on his expenses the cost of hiring an accountant to deal with his personal tax affairs. Unlike many of his colleagues, he said that he paid tax on this benefit.
The Chancellor agreed to reimburse the public purse after it emerged that he had continued to make claims for costs incurred on the Kennington flat after he had moved into Downing Street. This included a £1,004 service charge that had six months to run, meaning the public had paid up front for a flat where he no longer lived.
The Chancellor’s questionable expenses appeared to have given Mr Brown hope that he could be quietly moved out of the Treasury during the reshuffle following the local and European elections. But Mr Darling faced down the Prime Minister, refusing to accept a lesser role in government, or to become a scapegoat for the expenses scandal.