Mark Steel: If politicians feel underpaid, why don't they go on strike?

'Now Blair's got his rise, the next time he sees the Queen she'll be asking if she can borrow a few bob'
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The Independent Online

You've got to admire the front. What class to say, "Yesterday I won the election, so today I'm giving myself a 50-grand-a-year rise."

The statement should have ended with him singing, "And there's nothing you can do about it ­ cos you just voted me in again ­ nuur nuur nur nur nuur."

One MP, Fraser Kemp, was asked why the increases weren't mentioned before the election. So he said, "Well no, but it was mentioned just after the election."

As if there's no difference between these two points ­ "before" and "after". True, it was only three days after but sometimes three days is crucial. For example, if someone turned up this morning at Timothy McVeigh's cell and said, "Here's the ice-cream you requested, Mr McVeigh," they might be only three days late, but it would be three days of some significance.

Maybe Blair thinks that this is why there was such a low turnout at the election. Everyone was thinking, "Well I can't bear to vote for anyone, knowing that if they get elected they'll have to get by on such a pittance."

I suppose that until this rise, cabinet members could hardly make it through the week. Blair would lean across during Prime Minister's Questions and whisper, "Here, Gordon, you couldn't lend us a score till the end of the month, could you? Only I've had to get the clutch done and it's left me skint till the pay goes through."

If the President of Kenya was over, the state visit would have to be late in the morning because Robin Cook couldn't use his Travelcard before half past nine. And when the Japanese Prime Minister came across to discuss the restructuring of Anglo-Japanese trade restrictions, the banquet was held at a branch of Wetherspoon's so John Prescott could get a pint of Directors for £1.54.

Perhaps they were all like builders and got paid cash on a Friday in the pub. Then Jack Straw would get home the worse for wear, Mrs Straw would go through the pay packet and scream, "Is that it? How am I supposed to pay the grocer when he comes round in the morning?" And Jack would splutter, "I'm sorry, love, I got into a game of cards and I never thought I'd lose, I'm sorry baaa haaa, I love my kids." Then Mrs Straw would march round to Barbara Roche's in her dressing gown and shout, "Give us it back or I'll kick the door down."

Blair was already on one hundred and ten thousand pounds a year, for heaven's sake. Though admittedly he has to keep a wife who only has a part-time job for pin money of about 20 million quid a minute. What could they possibly want that they couldn't already afford? Has Cherie been to see Pearl Harbor and come home complaining, "It's not fair, the American navy had a whole fleet of battleships and we can't even afford one?"

Now Blair's got this rise, the next time he sees the Queen, she'll be asking if she can borrow a few bob.

And what do ministers have to pay for anyway? They get driven everywhere for free, fed every day for free, given a ministerial palace for free, and if they want an extra house, they can get one off Geoffrey Robinson. So what do they do with it all?

In 20 years' time, will we be reading a heart-rending story in the tabloids about Alistair Darling that starts, "He was clearing two grand a week and blew the lot on coke and casinos. He thought those wild cabinet days would go on forever, but now he lives in a bed-sit in Worthing and none of the neighbours even knows who he is."

There are two arguments used to defend this increase. The first is they haven't had an increase for four years. Imagine the furore if any other public sector workers tried this on, and stuck in a claim for 47 per cent. The other argument is that the increase brings their pay "into line" with people in "similar" jobs. In which case the rise should only be a first stage. After all, Arab potentates have harems, and Blair has to make do with the one wife. And what about the pharaohs? They got a pyramid each and Blair's Cabinet has to make do with a Dome between all of them.

But the most illogical side of this windfall is how it contradicts the adoration of the free market that pumps New Labour's heart.

Surely if public-sector workers are to deserve such riches, they should have to earn them through a public/private partnership. How much revenue could have been raised through sponsorship if we'd had the "Nationwide General Election", or David Blunkett had been moved to the "Rowntree Fruit Pastille Home Office".

Alternatively, politicians should have to fight for their increase in the same way as any other group that feels underpaid, and threaten strike action. Then see how long it was before people started screaming, "They're holding the country to ransom. It's four weeks now since we've been heard a Margaret Beckett speech, and I don't know how we're going to cope."

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