In his recent memoir, the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell recalls a conversation with Boris Johnson more than 20 years ago that is sharply relevant to the rolling sleaze crisis now engulfing the government. Having made his name as a celebrity journalist, Mr Johnson’s ambitions had swivelled to politics. His hungry gaze alighted on getting himself selected as the Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Henley and he sought out Mr Mitchell for advice on being an MP. “What does one get paid?” he asked. Upon hearing the answer, he boggled at an income that to him sounded like a very trivial sum and expostulated: “I can’t possibly live on that.”
As the public has been learning over recent days, the Tory leader is not the only politician to think that an MP’s salary, though nearly triple that of the national average, is a poverty wage. There are a lot with side hustles. While they may tell their constituents that it is a privilege to represent them in the Commons, they will eagerly serve other masters when the price is right.
This is a stink bomb that has been ticking away under parliament for a long time. The euphemism “outside interests” makes it sound like we are talking about knitting or some other harmless hobby. “Second jobs” is more like it, but still doesn’t do full justice to what goes on because, in the case of some MPs, there are third, fourth and even fifth jobs. They may seek to delude themselves or fool others that they are employed by commercial interests because of the brilliance of their minds. Maybe a few are. Most get these gigs only because they sit in the legislature with the most remunerative earners ching-chinging into the bank accounts of former ministers. What persuaded Hutchison Ports that Chris Grayling is worth £100,000 a year to them? Was it the stellar success he made of being transport secretary? You may recall that his highlights included leasing ferries from a company that did not possess any.
Many Tories are furious with their leader over the blowback from the Owen Paterson affair, but not all that anger is of the noble variety. A lot are cross because the prime minister’s shabby scheming has triggered a torrent of stories about moonlighting MPs and the voters, many of whom won’t have been previously conscious of it, don’t like what they see.
Rather as I thought it would, the government’s grotesque and ultimately vain attempt to protect one former cabinet minister from his rule breaking has blown up into something much more toxic. So much so that Mr Johnson was forced to make an extraordinary statement to the world’s media gathered in Glasgow for the Cop26 summit in which he insisted that the UK is not “remotely a corrupt country”. He would not have felt compelled to say that were not a lot of people smelling something extremely rotten in influence-peddling by MPs and seat-buying in the House of Lords.
If you fancy being an MP but wince at the salary on offer, there are four choices. You can decide that the personal cost of public service is more than you can bear and MPing is not for you. An alternative, if you have the ability, is to make your fortune before you enter politics. That is what Michael Heseltine did. For Rishi Sunak, the richest man in the Commons married to the daughter of a billionaire, his salary from the taxpayer makes scant difference to his family’s lifestyle. It is notable that the chancellor has apologised for the Paterson affair when the prime minister has conspicuously not. Mr Sunak may not be wrong to calculate that the public will be looking for a person with a clean reputation, rather than someone whose history is splattered with scandal, by the time the Tory party next chooses a leader.
For a person eager to be an MP who shudders at the wages, a third choice is to campaign for an increase in the salaries of parliamentarians. You can make an argument for that and the case could be more attractive if the quid quo pro was a ban on MPs having any other job. But contending that MPs should be made wealthier is not a crowd-pleaser, especially not when public sector wages have been frozen, many in the private sector are feeling the pinch and taxes are going up by a lot. So MPs are not to be found marching the streets chanting: “What do we want? More dosh! When do we want it? Before the nurses get a pay rise!”
The fourth choice is to have it both ways: satisfy your political ambitions and your appetite for more money by selling your services to private interests who think it useful to have a parliamentarian on their payroll. More than a quarter of Conservative MPs hold at least one additional job. They have been enabled by rules that have got stricter about declarations since the scandals of the 1990s, but remain very permissive about who MPs can take money from and with no limits on how much.
In response to the furore, three defences are offered for multi-jobbing. One is that the House of Commons is “richer for having members who do other things”. Sir Geoffrey Cox is certainly personally richer, to the tune of at least £6m, thanks to the fortune he has raked in as a barrister while also being an MP. It is less obvious how the lives of those he is paid to represent in parliament have been enriched by his busy schedule of lawyering, which included working 4,000 miles away for the government of the British Virgin Islands. In an apologise-for-nothing statement, the former attorney-general contends that “it is up to the electors” of his seat “whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field”. Objection, m’lud. I very much doubt that “the electors” sent Sir Geoffrey to the Commons thinking they were granting him a mandate to spend weeks in the Caribbean working for the government of a tax haven accused of corruption. He is an MP because Torridge and West Devon is – or was – a very safe Tory seat.
It is telling that MPs sitting for marginals are much less likely to have other jobs compared with those enthroned on large majorities. The most sleaze-intolerant Tory MPs tend to be those who came into parliament recently, often represent previously Labour constituencies and have smallish majorities that are in jeopardy if an appalled public turns on the Tories. An £82,000-a-year salary, plus expenses, is not only an extremely good wage in their localities, it was a pay rise for quite a lot of those first elected in 2019. The sleaze-tolerant Tory MPs tend to be those who have been comfortably ensconced in parliament for a long time. They sit on fat majorities and that has fed their sense of entitlement.
It is often from them that we hear the self-serving argument that banning MPs from taking extra earners will deter “high calibre” people from standing for parliament. Really? Thinking of the personalities involved in the many sleaze scandals over the years, do we conclude that the quality of public life would have been worse or better if the remuneration on offer had stopped Neil Hamilton from becoming an MP?
The hoariest justification for other jobs is that it enables MPs to “stay in touch” with the world outside Westminster. This claim would be more credible if loads of them chose to spend their time away from parliament serving in the community as care workers or supply teachers or bus drivers. No MP lists “street cleaning” as an outside interest. There are medic MPs who keep their hand in as doctors and the public don’t appear to mind that. The most serious objection is to the MPs whose concept of “staying in touch” is taking money from trade associations and other commercial entities. Even when properly declared, this reeks of private interests purchasing privileged inside knowledge, access and influence. It uses MPs as golden keys to the corridors of power.
Legislators should not be lobbyists. A ban on MPs taking on paid roles as “consultants”, “advisers” and “strategists” was recommended by the committee on standards in public life three years ago and is now under consideration by parliament’s own standards committee. It ought to happen. Whether it does is another matter. That will depend on whether Boris Johnson fears the heat from the media and the disgust of the public more than he does the wrath of the many Conservative MPs who will hate being deprived of their outside earners because, like him, they “can’t possibly live” on an MP’s salary.