Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
People often ask me: “what is it like being an MP”? My usual answer is as follows: “it is many things, but certainly not dull”. Never has that felt more true than during the last week or so.
I was in the Commons for the Owen Paterson debacle, then travelled to COP26 in Glasgow, and then returned to Westminster where the debacle was still raging well into the end of last week.
Personally, along with most Conservative colleagues, I knew little about the long-running investigation into Paterson until a couple of days before the vote. Upon reading the report of Chris Bryant’s Standards Committee, the details became very clear. Only then did I really see that we were going to have a real political problem. but I would be lying to say that I thought it would be quite as disastrous as it was. Having considered the issue carefully over the last few days, I am starting to get a sense of why this feels like, and certainly is, a pivotal moment of this Parliament.
The impact of the Paterson affair has been multi-faceted. First, it shows politicians in our worst light, putting a public focus on external earnings on top of a salary that seems like a reasonable one to most (to declare an interest, I am a non-executive director of a business myself).
Second, it shows us focusing on ourselves and our incomes and jobs, rather than peoples’ priorities, such as public services and the economy.
Third, our poor handling of the issue has led even our strongest supporters to question our ability to manage the country: if we can’t handle this sort of political issue, how can we handle the tough stuff that really matters?
Though the newspaper revelations have been about Paterson and certain other MPs, the Prime Minister is taking the bulk of the blame in the public discourse, in a way that goes far beyond the original sin of the Paterson vote. Why?
Part of the reason is that the events of the past fortnight have given those who don’t like the Prime Minister an opportunity to attack him, and they are not missing it.
Another part is feigned outrage that MPs have additional interests – which has been long known and acknowledged (though some of the more egregious examples were not known, and we should make sure that the rules are properly enforced).
However, another part is the nagging sense in the public that we should be better governed. And since the Prime Minister is at the apex of the system, he will carry most of the can. There is the same nagging sense that manifested itself during the Brexit referendum, and in the numerous attempts in the Corbyn years from those on the centre-left to replace the Labour Party with the alternative of Change UK, and others.
The real complaint from the public is that they don’t think that MPs and the Government are doing their jobs effectively enough. Dare I say it, I think they are right.
As I wrote on this site recently after the death of Sir David Amess, I think the role of an MP needs to be upgraded and improved. But it is broader than that. If the Conservative Party is to maintain public trust, we are going to have to make some changes, and make them quickly.
The Government and Prime Minister need to make the following things crystal clear.
First, that the Government will crack down on MPs who are seen to break the rules that are in place: paid lobbying is already banned, and so it should be. Any attempt to limit the hours or amounts from external interests will be very hard to get right, and will satisfy nobody.
So if we want to change the disciplinary system (and I think we should), these should be modest reforms focused on a better appeals mechanism only – and to get this over the line of public trust we will need to line up cross party and/or public support for such a change. Not easy.
Second, the Government needs a mid-term review. A re-set moment with the public. A clear, public-facing communications strategy, conducted in the New Year, about what we have done so far, and what we are hoping to do by the end of the Parliament.
We should be honest about what may no longer be possible, due to the impact of Covid on public finances and on government bandwith. We should explain where we have discovered new approaches and new ideas since the election, and openly set them out. We need to demonstrate that we are actually governing for the benefit of the British people and not ourselves.
The public feel battered and exhausted by politics once again. We had three years of Brexit dominating the headlines, dulling the will to live for most of us. Then, just when we had managed to “Get Brexit Done”, Covid 19 plunged us into another storm, with daily bulletins of our leading politicians dominating the headlines for the best part of a year.
Many in the public were not overjoyed by the performance of the political class in action during both Brexit and Covid, but I believe a major part of Boris Johnson’s appeal across the country in December 2019 was the fact that he was not a typical politician from the political class.
He is from outside the Westminster village and was a fantastic journalist – with a strong track record as a fairly independent-minded and ideologically flexible period as London Mayor. These are attractive qualities. Many voted for him as Prime Minister because he was and is different to the rest of the political class and the “old” Conservative Party. We need to remember that.
The danger of this political moment is that the Conservative Government may be close to losing a very precious thing – the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know for how long this will be the case, but I do not believe that our fall in poll support to the mid 30s will be temporary, nor is it just about this “sleaze” issue.
There are many structural factors at work. Memories of the vaccine bounce have long faded. Taxes have risen and are due to rise further. Lest we forget, an election in late 2023/4 would be 13 to 14 years since the Conservatives came into office. Due to Covid and other factors, we are likely to enter that election with government debt higher than in 2019, NHS backlogs still high, and household incomes still stretched
“Time for a change” will be a powerful rallying cry, despite Keir Starmer’s uselessness. It will not be an easy election to win outright. If we add to these factors a public sense that we are not in politics for the right reasons, or that we aren’t focused on practically improving people’s lives, we will get hammered at the next election and deservedly so.
We need to prove that we are worthy of the trust that was placed in us in 2019 and show we are focused on delivering for the public. Unless we do that, we will go the way of previous long-running administrations – 1964 (13 years), 2010 (13 years), 1997 (18 years) – a gradual and then sudden decline into defeat.