The view that King Lear was illustrating is that even the barest necessities are surplus to requirement for the poorest people. It is one that some voters would apply to Members of Parliament – and today’s Fleet Street editorials duly act as their mouthpiece (with the mob-defying exception of the the Times (£)). Needless to say, MPs are pronged on a Catch-22: if they vote on their own pay, we ask how such a moral abomination can possibly be allowed to happen. If they don’t, and are instead given a pay rise, we ask how such a moral abomination can…but you have guessed the rest. There they are – nicely skewered on the press’s Morton’s Fork.
Indeed, one way of looking at the whole business is as a kind of game – a ritual dance. First, the independent body (the ludicrous IPSA, in this case) recommends a rise. Second, Downing Street, caught between the devil of backbench opinion and the deep confected sea of media outrage, plumps for the latter. Third, a bevy of on-message Cabinet Ministers rushes for the cameras and studios, piously declaring that they won’t take the rise. Fourth, local papers phone MPs, asking every one whether he or she will follow suit. Fifth, each squints anxiously at his neighbour, glances at the e-mails, sniffs the wind, ponders how the headlines would look, sighs, and waves away the lucre.
Admittedly, there are a few exceptions today: Jack Straw, who is too long in the tooth to care what the press writes; Peter Bottomley (ditto) and David Ruffley. But they will be trampled under in the general stampede from the righteous wrath of the leader writers. Once MPs have recovered their nerve, or at least their wits, they will quietly review the situation. More will then follow in the footsteps of James Arbuthnot and Lorraine Fullbrook (for example), and announce that they will stand down in 2015. And the Commons will shuffle a little further down the road to becoming the preserve of the fanatical, the rich and the union-funded. The ambitious will go in, become Ministers – and get out as fast as possible.
We all have views on what MPs should be, and they fall into one of two broad categories. The first is that being an MP is a job. If so, it follows that they must be professional politicians, funded by the taxpayer, and barred from having outside interests. If this is what we want, then MPs should take the rise, on the ground that the quality of representation is unlikely to improve if they’re paid less than county council staff (second tier) or health officials (HR directors).
The other view is that being an MP is not a job, and that the Commons should be filled with citizen representatives, not professional politicians (who can only turn into that most detested of objects, “the political class”). If this is what we want, then MPs shouldn’t take the rise, but should be free to earn outside the Commons – and some of the restrictions that deter them from doing so should be stripped away. For what it’s worth, this is mine and, in a more dramatic form, Andrew Gimson’s.
But since, though we all have our individual view on which model we prefer, we cannot reach a collective one, the merry dance will continue. As Lear, again, puts it: “Allow not nature more than nature needs!”