Once again the UK’s elected MPs are in trouble. The current furore involves only two of them, two of the biggest in Parliament: former foreign secretaries caught out in another TV sting. But the voters’ disdain will extend well beyond the duo, who were filmed discussing potentially lucrative assignments. A lot of voters will feel renewed anger as they respond with those famous clichés, “They’re all the same”. “They’re all in it for themselves.”
The clichés are wrong but they raise two pivotal questions. Who do we want to represent us, and what roles do we wish them to perform? The Straw/Rifkind saga highlights the complex challenge of seeking clear answers. In their case two entirely contradictory arguments apply.
Straw and Rifkind’s comments in the Channel 4 sting are not as shocking as they seem, and yet the outrage of some voters is wholly justified. In order to explain the contradiction let us consider the matter from the perspectives of Straw and Rifkind, then the wider electorate.
Straw is standing down as an MP in May. Like many who give up a job, he wants to continue working and to earn money. He has already earned additional cash working for a company. The details are in the register of MPs’ interests. In the film he declares that his fee is £5,000 a day “if I’m doing a speech or something”. Separately in the film, Rifkind proclaims that he has plenty of time on his hands, so much of it that he walks and reads extensively.
To most voters the whole of that sequence is beyond explanation, which is why the two party leaders cannot afford to show any nuance in their responses. The duo will be thrown to the wolves. Most of Straw’s constituents do not earn anywhere near £5,000 a month, let alone a day for delivering a “speech or something”. Similarly voters who have turned against the Conservative party on the grounds that it stands only for the out-of-touch wealthy will have their instincts confirmed by Rifkind’s apparent appetite for additional cash.
Yet the sequence is not shocking, in the sense that it is not surprising. Unlike the revelations in relation to MPs’ expenses, the information about politicians performing other well-paid roles is out there in front of our eyes. To take a well-known example, in 2001 after the Conservatives lost the election, William Hague stood down as leader but remained an MP. He became admired widely for his capacity to earn vast sums giving entertaining speeches, taking some directorships, and for writing books.
I found it comically illuminating that when Hague was leader he could find no admiring audience for his speeches. When he stepped down, companies were willing to pay a fortune to hear him. That was an issue for those signing the cheques rather than for Hague. Who can blame him for earning the money? Few voters did. He remained an assiduous MP. His popularity soared.
In pictures: Embarrassing political exits
In pictures: Embarrassing political exits
1/9 Mark Harper
Immigration minister Mark Harper resigned after emerged his cleaner was in the country illegally. Mr Harper quit after he discovered his cleaner, whom he employed at his London flat for seven years, did not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
2/9 Mark Menzies
Former Conservative MP Mark Menzies resigned as a ministerial aide following allegations made by a Brazilian rent boy in March. The MP for Fylde in Lancashire resigned his position as the parliamentary private secretary (PPS) amid allegations which appeared in a tabloid newspaper, which he strenuously denied.
3/9 Liam Fox
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned in 2011 over his working relationship with his friend Adam Werritty, which saw the Tory MP ordered to repay £3,000 of expenses for allowing Mr Werritty to live rent-free at his taxpayer-funded second home for a year. Mr Fox faced further embarrassment when it was revealed successfully claimed 3p of taxpayers’ cash for a car journey of fewer than 100 metres.
4/9 Denis MacShane
Labour MP for Rotherham Denis MacShane resigned over what a parliamentary enquiry described as “the gravest case of misconduct” ever to be investigated at the time. The ex-Europe Minister was jailed for six months after making false expense claims of nearly £13,000. The former MP previously pleaded guilty to false accounting by filing 19 fake receipts for “research and translation” services. MacShane, 65, used the money to fund a series of trips to Europe, including one to judge a literary competition in Paris.
5/9 Patrick Mercer
Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip in May last year after he was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' apparently agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji for a pro-Fijian cross-party committee.
6/9 Michael Martin
Former Labour party MP Michael Martin became the first Commons Speaker to be forced out of office for more than 300 years following criticism of his handling of the MP’s expenses scandal of 2009.
7/9 Jacqui Smith
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stood down in the cabinet reshuffle amid a flurry of controversy after the MPs expenses scandal revealed her husband Richard Timney, who also ran her constituency office, had watched two pay-per-view adult movies which had then, unknown to her, been subject to a claim for reimbursement. The ‘porn scandal’ not only saw the former Labour MP Ms Smith, who was the first female Home Secretary, eventually resign but also saw her lose her back bench position in May 2010.
8/9 Sir Peter Viggers
Sir Peter Viggers also found himself caught up in the MPs expenses scandal when The Daily Telegraph reported that the Conservative Party Member had attempted to claim for a pond feature identified as a floating duck island, although this was notoriously rejected. The Gosport MP said he would repay £10,000 in claims for garden maintenance and repairs and agreed to stand down at the next election.
9/9 Prime Minister David Cameron
David Cameron gave his shock resignation in … wait, no he didn’t. Wales Online were forced to apologise after a story that the government was rocked by news the PM had quit was used in a “training exercise” but went live on the internet by accident before it was quickly pulled.
Or take the case of Ken Clarke. In opposition, he became a director of British American Tobacco. Imagine if Channel 4 had filmed those negotiations in secret. They did not do so and Clarke remains an admired public figures. As with Straw and Rifkind, both Hague and Clarke declared their external activities on the MPs’ register.
Rifkind’s confession that he had a lot of spare time to read and walk sounded appalling. But he was being clumsily candid. Frankly, some MPs are quite bored as they await an election after a long five-year parliament. If they choose to do so, some of them have time to walk and read. This is not a revelation, nor is it big news that a former Foreign Secretary can earn £5,000 for a speech. A TV presenter or stand-up comedian can earn a lot more than that. Yet of course to those whose lives are miles away from the wild market of speech-making it is shocking.
Here is the dilemma arising from the vast gap between voters’ disdain and the potential for MPs to supplement their incomes. If MPs are not allowed to earn more, or to contemplate earning any income once they leave the Commons, fewer talented people will enter politics or, crucially, stay in politics. In staying on after his traumatic spell as leader, Hague has been a calming confidant for David Cameron, perhaps his only senior colleague with no ambition to succeed him. Clarke continues to be one of the most important voices on the Conservative benches, on Europe and other matters. They and others might not have stuck with the long haul of opposition after 1997 if they had not been allowed to take other jobs.
Do we as a country want elected representatives to earn salaries, say, close to the average wage? There is a powerful argument for such an arrangement. If there is a cost of living crisis they will know about it personally. There is also a strong case for arguing that former cabinet ministers can work nowhere once they have retired from politics. After all, the interest of Channel 4’s imaginary company in Straw and Rifkind has nothing to do with the duo’s personal charm. They are in demand because of what they have done, what they know and who they know. But if there is a ban on former ministers taking up posts when they leave politics, some might not seek to be a minister in the first place. The talent pool for the big jobs in government, and on the front bench in opposition, would be even narrower than it already is.
There is an alternative route. MPs should earn more. If they take outside jobs there must be total transparency. Transparency is high already. If an MP receives so much as a table tennis ball as a gift he or she must declare it. But it has become politically impossible to pay higher salaries. As a result, an appetite for higher earnings, not uncommon in other professions, takes seemingly desperate forms.
MPs are in trouble. That means that we as a democracy are in trouble. Do we want MPs to be local representatives alone, coming from a local community and becoming an advocate for that community as a noble end in itself? Do we want MPs to be brilliant cabinet ministers, implementing change or dynamic shadow ministers, holding governments to account while leading their party effectively?
Sometimes the local representative, indifferent to income, will become brilliant national politicians too, but not always. We might benefit from representatives who want to earn a lot more than an MP’s current salary. As a country we have awkward questions to answer too.Reuse content