Leading article: Double standards

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Charges of hypocrisy are flying around Westminster. The Labour MP, Karen Buck, has withdrawn her son from one of the Government's new city academies in her constituency, despite having been a supporter of the shake-up of secondary schooling that brought them into being. Meanwhile, Hazel Blears, the Labour Party chairwoman, joined a picket line at Hope hospital in Salford before Christmas, even though its prospective closure is a consequence of her Government's belated drive to reform the NHS.

Ms Blears argues in her defence that any MP would do the same. This is no doubt true. The Home Secretary, John Reid, joined a protest against hospital cutbacks in his Airdrie and Shotts constituency earlier this year. So did Jacqui Smith, the chief whip, who campaigned against a threatened hospital closure in Redditch. It is no coincidence that hospital closures are particularly likely to spur a local MP into action. All politicians are terrified by the spectre of Wyre Forest, where a Labour MP's healthy majority was wiped out in 2001 by an independent candidate. The issue at stake then? The closure of a local hospital.

It is not only Labour MPs who have put local political expediency above the stance of their party in recent years. The Conservative candidate for Dorset South at the last general election got into trouble when it emerged that he had supported the right of a popular Malawian asylum-seeker, threatened with deportation, to stay in Britain. This was manifestly at odds with the Tories' "tough" stance on immigration in 2005.

It is undoubtedly difficult for politicians - particularly cabinet ministers, who must be local representatives as well as part of the Government - to juggle such conflicting demands. It is hard to think of many politicians who would act differently from Ms Buck, who says she acted in the best interests of her child. But such personal dilemmas do not exonerate those politicians who are seen publicly to preach one thing and practise another.

The hypocrisy is particularly obvious in the case of Ms Blears. If she believes reform of the NHS is necessary, as she still maintains, how can she object when it is happening in her own constituency? With suspicions that hospital closures are occurring disproportionately in non-Labour constituencies, it becomes doubly important that members of the Cabinet are seen to act properly.

There are ways that politicians can balance their duties as local MPs with their responsibilities in the Government. But joining a local picket line while continuing to cling to all the power and prestige of national office is not one of them.

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