Shopped: Tory whose tills share his toils

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Labour warned yesterday that the voters of Tunbridge Wells would be "short-changed" if they voted for the Tory candidate Archie Norman at the election, because the Asda store chairman believes that being an MP is not a full-time job.

Mr Norman told the Yorkshire Post that he hoped to stay on as part- time chairman of the Leeds-based store group for three more years. "Being a backbench MP is not a full-time occupation," he said

That remark provoked Labour's campaign spokesman Brian Wilson to issue a press release headed: "Tory threatens to disgust Tunbridge Wells".

"Most MPs find that constituency and parliamentary work add up to something more than a full-time job. The idea that you can also run a grocery chain is bizarre," Mr Wilson said. "Mr Norman is inheriting a handsome majority. But with an attitude like this, it would be no surprise if Tunbridge Wells decides to express its disgust."

In fact, a significant minority treat the Commons as a part-time place of employment.

A number of former ministers who are standing down from Parliament at the election have taken up time-consuming and lucrative outside jobs.

But the part-time temperament is by no means confined to the Tory benches. Surveys carried out over the years show that Labour MPs are as prone as Conservatives, and others, to opt out of the routine parliamentary business of making speeches and asking questions.

An analysis by The Independent published in March 1990 showed that in the 1988-89 Commons session, a total of 19 MPs were literally speechless in the chamber. Six of those MPs were Labour, 10 were Tories and the others were from minority parties.

While many MPs make speeches and ask questions in the chamber, attend select committees, volunteer for service on standing committees, which give line-by-line scrutiny to legislation, and devote weekends to constituency "surgery" work, many more spend their mornings attending to their outside business interests.

Mr Norman, who hopes to succeed Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is retiring as Tunbridge Wells MP, recently joked to Tatler magazine that after working flat out for five years, he hoped that being an MP would let him, uniquely, spend more time with his family.