I WASN’T expecting it. When I phoned Barry Sheerman to ask his opinion on the jailing of his old friend David Chaytor, I had anticipated a muted response.
The former Bury North MP had just been imprisoned for 18 months after pleading guilty to defrauding more than £20,000 from the taxpayer.
As I phoned the Huddersfield MP on Friday afternoon I expected him to offer a few words of condolence for his jailed buddy, followed by a glum acceptance that a spell inside had been inevitable.
But, no, Mr Sheerman was on fighting form, angrily telling me that Chaytor’s imprisonment was “a waste of taxpayers’ money” and describing the law as “an ass”.The Huddersfield MP went on to say that his friend had been “made an example of” and that a community service order would have been sufficient punishment for his crimes.
And Mr Sheerman wasn’t finished after speaking to me as he dashed off to the BBC News studio at Westminster to repeat his opinions to the viewing public. The Huddersfield MP seemed to spend much of Friday afternoon tracking down anyone with a notebook or a microphone within a mile radius of the Houses of Parliament.
I imagined Labour leader Ed Miliband tearing his hair out as he watched one of his most experienced backbenchers speaking up for a jailed fraudster on live TV.
As a reporter, I’m not allowed to have an opinion, but as a columnist it rather helps if I have the occasional point of view. So, with that hat on, I have to say I disagree with almost everything Mr Sheerman said last Friday.
I can’t see how anyone can claim Chaytor is being “made an example of” when several other former MPs are making their way through the courts as a result of the expenses scandal of 2009. Let’s see what happens to them before we decide if Chaytor has been victimised.
Just yesterday, Barnsley Central MP Eric Illsley admitted in court dishonestly claiming more than £14,000 in expenses.
As for Mr Sheerman’s claim that jailing his friend is “a waste of taxpayers’ money”, well, it depends how you look at it.
Like any other non-violent criminal, Chaytor does not need to be imprisoned for the public’s safety. But there is a financial argument for jailing a thieving ex-MP if it puts manners on the rest of them.
Chaytor’s imprisonment will pay for itself if it persuades a few other honourable members to keep their hands out of the till.
Neither do I agree with Mr Sheerman that the law was “an ass” in this case. Chaytor admitted false accounting involving forging tenancy agreements.
This was not an oversight or a slight accounting mishap – it was a calculated attempt to swindle the taxpayer by claiming rent on properties already owned by himself and his mother.
But even though I disagree with what Mr Sheerman said about the Chaytor case, I admire him for saying it.
He must have known he would get grief for defending his roguish chum.
The verdict from Examiner readers has been hostile with comments such as “he still doesn’t get it” and “you are judged by the company you keep” among the milder rebukes for the Huddersfield MP on our website.
By defending Chaytor on BBC News, Mr Sheerman has opened himself up to criticism from across the country.
As a journalist I shouldn’t say this, but Friday was one of those days when a straight-bat “no comment” would have saved him a lot of trouble.
It’s to Mr Sheerman’s credit that he had the courage of his convictions and spoke up for what he believed in, even when so few agreed with him.
It speaks well of him, of his loyalty to his friends, that he was ready to defend a colleague when no-one else would.
The coward and the wise man would both have abandoned Chaytor to his fate.
But Mr Sheerman stuck with him, long past the point of common sense and political calculation. Voters often moan that politicians don’t say what they believe, that they give carefully crafted answers to avoid any controversy.
On this rare occasion, an MP said what he thought and to hell with the consequences.
You don’t have to agree with Mr Sheerman’s verdict on the Chaytor case to admire him for having the courage to express it.