Reasons to be cheerful about putting MPs in the big money

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The Independent Online
The eyes of the public were upon them. In the hours leading up to the big pay debate and vote, MPs knew that they were being scrutinised with particular vigour by the denizens of the press gallery. So it was vital that three unmistakable messages reached us.

Unmistakable Message 1: that MPs are knowledgeable, possess valuable expertise and unusual insights - so pay them more.

And indeed these qualities were amply demonstrated during the hour-long Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Question Time. The session was well attended. Members gave their views on Kashmir, flew the mental thousands of miles to Burundi (where the ingenious Eurosceptic John Wilkinson contrived to blame the European Union for recent atrocities, without actually claiming to have seen Jacques Santer stalking through the tea plantations), bemoaned Burma, extolled Eastern Europe, indicted Indonesia and commended the Turkish occupation of Cyprus.

Marks: 2 out of 10.

Nothing was said that could not have been gleaned from a couple of back copies of the Economist. The Economist, however, is occasionally interesting. So what about ...

Unmistakable Message 2: that MPs work so hard, they are perpetually knackered. So pay them more.

At about 3.20 yesterday afternoon, as Sir Nicholas Bonsor (one of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of junior Foreign Office ministers) was ponderously agreeing with Buzz-saw Arnold that trade sanctions against anybody would simply mean that the perfidious French/Italians/Germans (delete as appropriate) would muscle in on our contracts, I happened to steal a glance at the shadow Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

Now, I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr Cook. The light of an exceptional intelligence always burns bright in his slightly protruberant eye. When his forehead creases into a quizzical frown, you can anticipate with pleasure that someone is in trouble. But now there was no such glint, no clever furrows, nothing. Mr Cook, as far as I could tell, had succumbed to a combination of the summer heat, his extensive duties and the tedious expertise of his colleagues. His hands folded on his lap, his brow smoothed, his chest moving rhythmically, his mouth in a tiny smile, Mr Cook was - in my opinion - fast asleep.

But Mr Cook was not alone. Further down the Labour front-bench, that partisan wag, George Foulkes, was also enjoying the embrace of Morpheus. Arms folded over his comfortable stomach, his legs stretched across to where the clerks sit, Mr Foulkes only stirred when Gwyneth Dunwoody (Labour, Crewe) gave the Government the benefit of her pungent opinion on its policy for the BBC's World Service.

"That's the greatest load of rubbish I've ever heard," she proclaimed. From the depths of Lethe, George nevertheless managed to dredge a smile, a gurgle of agreement, an almost imperceptible nod of the head, before returning to his untroubled slumbers. It was a magnificent piece of solidarity coming from a sleeping man.

Marks: 9 out of 10.

A most effective performance. Which leaves ...

Unmistakable Message 3: that MPs do a vast amount of work on my behalf and yours. So pay them more.

At 4 o'clock Patrick Nicholls (Conservative, Teignbridge) proceeded to tell us all the terrible tale of Devon County Council and the Foskett family. Apparently little Richard Foskett wanted to join his brother in Moretonhampstead, but was forced to go to Bovey Tracey by evil LibDems who wouldn't pay his bus fare.

By now not only was Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman insensible, but Jacques Arnold's industrial whine had been replaced by a gentle and regular breathing. Mr Nicholls was undeterred; did the House know about the Walkers of Newton Abbott? The Weirdstone of Brisingamen? Then let me tell you.

Marks a very respectable 8 out of 10. Even those in the public gallery were impressed.

So (I thought) pay them more.