Sketch: Sir Peter Tapsell earns his keep by coming to the PM’s aid


Click to follow

Sir Peter Tapsell is rarely predictable. You never know if the father of the House will be helpful to his leader. But today he was gallantry itself, making Cameron’s case with a robustness that had eluded the PM. If MPs were not allowed a second job, they would soon be “confined to the inheritors of substantial fortunes or to those with rich spouses, or to obsessive crackpots or those who are unemployable anywhere else”.

Sadly it came too late. Defending moonlighting MPs on the similar, if more tepidly expressed, grounds that “Parliament is stronger when we have people with different experiences” Cameron had already floundered.

First, he complained that a Labour motion, drawn up post-Rifkind/Straw cash for access fracas and seeking to prevent MPs holding “directorships and consultancies”, would “allow someone to be a paid trade union official, but not to... run a family business”.

This was true. But it was also a trap. Because Ed Miliband then said in an OK-fine-no-problem kind of voice: “Let us agree now that we will rule out anyone being a paid trade union official, a paid director or a paid consultant.”

This was an easy concession, since the last such trade union official anyone can remember in the Commons was Frank Cousins 50 years ago – and he was on leave of absence.

But it was a theatrical coup, registered by Labour MPs waking from their frequent torpor and baying as loudly as the Tories.

Cameron, possibly grateful that the noise allowed him a pause, and caught between public distaste for what he himself once disparaged as “double-jobbing” and reluctance to goad his own MPs into terminal revolt by forcing them to rub along on £67,000 a year, announced: “I will answer him very clearly.”

Which in politicianese usually carries the unspoken addendum “when I have thought what to say...”. He then switched tack. Miliband wanted to cap what any MP could earn above his parliamentary salary. But, Cameron said with a flourish, “the person with the highest outside earnings on the Labour side was David Miliband”.

There were several problems with this. The cap was not in the Labour motion.

Miliband anyway offered cross-party agreement on what it should be. And it was a risky break with normal Tory practice of trying to persuade Labour MPs they had made the wrong choice in 2010.

Cameron could hardly have picked a better way of convincing them they had made the right one.