Imagine two composite figures. Both are Conservative MPs.
Let’s call the first Giles. He sits for a home counties seat, is a former Minister, is a part-time consultant, and was first elected before the Coalition took office. He earns about £150,000 a year. His wife dislikes politics but has got used to it.
The second is Emma. She sits for a Red Wall consistuency, is preoccupied with retaining it, and earns no income other than her MP’s salary of about 82,000. Her husband dislikes politics and has not got used to it: the marriage is in trouble.
Among real Tory MPs, these generational differences of sex, geography and age are causing peaceful co-existence to break down.
Sex: Caroline Nokes’ naming and shaming of Stanley Johnson (if it’s possible to shame the shameless older Johnson) is a skirmish in the culture wars – a clash between men who grew up in the cavalier 1960s and women at ease with the puritan 2020s. It’s Me First v Me Too.
Circumstance: Mark Fletcher’s speech in last week’s debate about the Paterson affair strained convention. “Two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong,” he said, as he laid into critics of the Standards Committee, of which he is a member. Fletcher sits for Red Wall Bolsover.
Age: Christopher Chope is 74. He first served as a Minister under Margaret Thatcher. His mission in Parliament is keep alive the spirit of a lost age – one in which the Commons gave the scrutiny of business more priority. At its heart, this is what the clash betweeen him and Alicia Kearns in the Commons yesterday was all about.
I’m painting with a broad brush. Some Conservative MPs in recently-won seats have outside interests, for example, and some in long-established ones are full-time MPs. But the picture is recognisable. Two tribes are jostling on the Tory backbenches: Red Wallers and Blue Jobbers.
It ought to be possible to work out an accommodation between them. Admittedly, the profile of Emma, my imaginary Red Waller, is more like that of a Labour MP than is it is of Giles, my imaginary Blue Jobber – in financial terms, anyway. And, given where she sits for, in constituency ones, too.
But each is mutually dependent on the other if the unity of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is to survive. So they ought to be able to reach a compromise. Its main features would be agreement that outside interests are a good thing, but that the worst of them should be barred – as paid advocacy, the cause of Paterson’s downfall, is already.
That would mean, in the words of a report by Paul Bew’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, that “MP’s interests outside the House should not compromise their principal role as MPs”. In other words, there would be a ban on them acting as political consultants.
As ever, the demons are in the detail. “What is to a stop an MP simply being made a non-executive director of a limited company rather than a political consultant?” Andrew Marshall asked on Twitter yesterday evening. A thousand other questions arise.
But it ought to be possible for a system which bars the practice to be designed, enforced in writing – and policed. The question then arises: under what terms? Bew wants such a ban as part of a package. It would contain outside interests within “reasonable limits”. This brings us to Boris Johnson.
The Prime Minister laid low for the best part of a week, in the wake of the Paterson affair, before eventually producing an apology. And not until yesterday evening did he project a view on the issues arising from it – which is to signal that the Government supports the committee’s proposals. So why has he moved now?
The answer seems to be a predictable one – namely, to head off Keir Starmer. Labour has an Opposition Day motion today. It proposes more restrictions on outside interests than Bew did. The latter’s report is thus being deployed by Johnson as a protective shield. He is sheltering behind it as he did behind the Dilnot Report on social care.
Indeed, the Government motion tabled in response to Starmer’s, which duly references the Bew Report, doesn’t actually commit the Prime Minister to anything. It merely says that parts of Bew forms “the basis of a viable approach which could command the confidence of parliamentarians and the public”.
This is tactics, not strategy. Johnson’s motto, – in this case as in so much else – is mañana – or, to borrow from the Bible, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. Diving for cover is a standard technique in a politician’s manual and, very often, it works well enough.
But will it do so in this case, given the background I describe? The Prime Minister is trying to appease two audiences at once. The first are MP-hostile voters. Polling suggests that these are well represented in Red Wall seats. The second are, at least potentially, all Conservative MPs not solely dependent on their MPs salary, plus some others.
For they can work out what will happen next. Chris Bryant’s Standards Committee is undertaking a review of outside interests. It is unlikely to propose less restrictive measures than Bew’s did and may well deliver more. The Government’s motion asks for proposals to be published by the end of January next year.
At which time, Johnson may no longer be able to kick the can down the road – the very thing he excoriated Theresa May for doing over Brexit, and which he exploited to further her fall and his rise. No wonder Graham Brady and an agitated 1922 Committee were beating a desperate path to the Prime Minister’s door yesterday evening.
My imaginary Giles may not wait until February, or at least not hang around for long. The media is out for his scalp. His wife has had enough of the social media death threats. The firms who employ him are getting cold feet. His Association is twitchy. And the Tory modernisers who decry culture wars elsewhere want to wage one – against him.
A leadership challenge remains unlikely. The main danger for Johnson, rather, is a series of lost by-elections, as the media take out some of the Blue Jobbers, and others decide to quit anyway.
After all, why hang around in the Commons, other than to maximise your pension? This is scarcely a flattering light in which to frame Giles and his colleagues. But I’m afraid that the public service only takes one so far – in some cases, anyway. Money matters to the Blue Jobbers, as it does to the rest of us.
The stage is set for the House I foresaw when I left it in 2010. “In the short term, a few older MPs with knowledge of the outside world will hang on. But some of their younger colleagues will quietly leave…most of the rest will get in quick, scramble to the top, and get out quicker. The Commons’ institutional memory will weaken”.
So much of which might still be avoided by a proper right of recall.