Patrick Mercer is the latest MP to be caught out by an agent provocateur. On this occasion, it was a reporter from BBC’s Panorama, posing as a lobbying organisation. For a promised £24,000, they persuaded Mr Mercer to set up a pro-Fijian cross-party committee, to put a couple of written questions to government ministers and to put down some Early Day Motions. Mr Mercer denies taking payment for performance of his parliamentary duties, but is under investigation.
On hearing this, one’s first response was simply this: he thought he could get paid for putting down some EDMs?
Early Day Motions are a bizarre and ludicrous aspect of parliamentary procedure. They are motions, theoretically for debate, which are printed on the order paper. Any member can table one, and any other member can sign them in agreement. They can be on any sort of subject. I notice that the Blackpool MP Gordon Marsden has tabled one recently congratulating the Blackpool pier on celebrating its 150th birthday. You could put one down congratulating Wagner on Götterdämmerung if you felt like it.
The point about them is that absolutely nobody reads them unless they are paid to. I think I’m right in saying that no EDM ever reaches the point of being debated – it would be a rare and historic occasion if it ever happened. No minister responds to them; no discussion takes place; no consequences could possibly follow. “Early day”, in their title, is a euphemism for “never”.
What are they there for? Well, simple. They are there to persuade the outside world that an individual MP is doing something. An MP meets a constituent with a burning concern. They don’t even have to offer money – just the unspoken threat of voting in another direction. The MP could try to meet a minister to raise concerns. He could ask a question and get a dusty answer. Or he can table an EDM. None of these consequences will get anywhere at all; the MP and Parliament will usually know this quite well. Not many members can achieve anything much. They just need to be seen to be doing something.
Really, it hardly seems to make much difference whether an MP takes money or not for tabling an EDM. Any suggestion to the lobbying firm that this is achieving anything at all seems scandalously dishonest to me; as indeed would be any suggestion by the lobbying firm to their poor clients that they have done anything worth paying for by getting a motion on to the order paper. Mr Mercer might as well have boasted that he had written FIJI RULES on the inside of a toilet cubicle in the House of Commons. More people would have read it.
The tragic thing about Mr Mercer’s activities is that nobody would have paid the slightest attention to them if they had been legitimate. Nobody, in government or outside, cares about all-party parliamentary groups. Some of them promote bridge (the game), organise choral singing or cricket matches, enjoy jazz or worthily discuss drug misuse. Nobody else cares what they get up to. Occasionally a member asks a minister a written question, and the minister gives what information he or she can; sometimes it is useful, sometimes it is designed to demonstrate a member’s usefulness. Or members can put down an Early Day Motion, and later show it to their party, their constituents, or a local business, showing them that the House of Commons is collectively thrilled at the 150th birthday of the local pier, or whatever.
“Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all,” Balfour said. Deep down, most MPs know this perfectly well. But they cannot admit it. To justify themselves, and to explain their insanely busy lives, they have to sustain devices that make them look as if they are achieving anything. It’s all very well so long as everyone involved understands the emptiness of the charade. When innocent outsiders are given the impression that something is being done for them, it hardly matters whether they have paid any money or not. They are being wilfully deceived. Corruption does not start with the handing over of sums of money.
Was she really worth it? Probably not
The singer and talent-show judge Tulisa Contostavlos has also been trapped – in a drugs-bust entrapment operation by a red-top Sunday newspaper. An undercover reporter asked her where he could buy some cocaine. She said that she didn’t snort cocaine herself, but she could give him the number of a drug dealer, and gave him a code word to bandy. The reporter took the number, contacted the drug dealer and bought £800 worth of the drugs. At present, both the dealer and Ms Contostavlos are facing charges for supplying class A drugs.
Whatever the liability of someone who actually sells drugs, it is perfectly incredible that anyone thinks it worth exposing, still less charging someone who passes on a phone number. Someone of Ms Contostavlos’s age, image and celebrity must be continually bombarded with these requests. She has worked quite hard to create an image that is as street-cool and edgy as Saturday night on ITV is ever going to get. It is polite of her in these circumstances to say, briefly, “I can’t help you, but give this bloke a ring.”
Probably 90 per cent of Londoners her age would be able to say exactly the same thing, or at any rate point them in the direction of a friend of a friend. Is that now considered supplying, too? How can that be regarded as worth anyone’s interest? De minimis non curat lex. If only the same could be said of the Sunday red-tops in search of a harmless celebrity to do down.