Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
“It’s one rule for MPs and one for everyone else”.
Yes. Yes, it is. But in precisely the opposite way that most people mean. During the lockdown, no one thought it improper for keyworkers – nurses, say – to pause for cake. But the moment those keyworkers were politicians, it became a national scandal.
You might argue that lawmakers should hold themselves to a higher standard. Fine. What you can’t argue is that they get off more lightly.
All the MPs reading this column know (though they can’t say it except to each other) that the burden of proof is reversed for them. Politicians are assumed to be guilty until proved innocent. I don’t just mean that people cluck and gossip and whisper “no smoke without fire”. I mean that even obviously frivolous and malicious allegations can result in their deselection.
Consider the outrageous case of Conor Burns, the former Northern Ireland minister. Burns, who is gay, lost the whip after being spotted touching another man’s thigh.
The man in question was not in the least bit upset, and it was clear to everyone that nothing untoward had taken place. Yet, for weeks, Burns was outside the party – not allowed, in the event of an election, to stand again as a Tory.
Burns believes he was targeted by Wendy Morton, the then Chief Whip, because he had said warm things about Kemi Badenoch at a party conference fringe meeting. Be that as it may, it is incredible that such a potentially career-ending decision could be made without any pretence at due process, and on such obviously flimsy grounds.
“It is right that Conor Burns MP has been both removed from government and also had the whip removed following these serious allegations,” said Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect, the union that represents parliamentary staff. Clancy went on to call for any MP accused of improper conduct – accused, not charged, let alone convicted – to be banned from setting foot in Parliament. One rule for them…
True, Burns was readmitted last weekend – albeit by a new Chief Whip. But the process is the punishment. Unless you have been the target of a false accusation, you cannot imagine how stressful the whole thing is. Burns has also, incidentally, lost his ministerial salary. Though he might reasonably expect to be reinstated, there will be no compensation for forfeited income – let alone for emotional strain.
Many readers will harden their hearts because Burns is an MP. Some will opine below that I am standing up for my own kind, just another out-of-touch Tory who Doesn’t Get It.
This, of course, is why whips and party leaders behave as they do. Cowed by public criticism, they apply the logic of Salem, dismissing colleagues peremptorily rather than risk being accused of cronyism.
There has been some press comment about the number of Conservative MPs, including Sajid Javid, Chloe Smith and Dehenna Davison, standing down when their careers are far from over. But the real wonder is that anyone is volunteering to replace them.
MPs are expected to work long hours to provide a queue-jumping service for pushy constituents. They are paid more than the average wage but, in most cases, less than they could earn in the private sector – the worst possible compromise, irritating their voters while leaving them feeling as if they have made a sacrifice.
And what do they get for their unappealing hourly rate? Contempt, sarcasm, and the occasional threat of violence.
Why? Why do we treat them so differently from those nurses? Think of the nurses who have become MPs – Sarah Atherton in Wrexham, say, or Maria Caulfield in Lewes. What transformed them from undervalued angels into liars and crooks? What extraordinary metamorphosis did they undergo?
Only this: they offered themselves to their communities for election.
Which brings us to the real paradox. Of all the groups of workers in the country, the ones we love to hate are those we hire and fire ourselves.
If you really think MPs are doing a terrible job, why don’t you have a go? No doubt you have lots of reasons. You’re busy with other things, you don’t fancy the lifestyle, you wouldn’t be any good at toeing the party line, you don’t want to be away from your family.
All perfectly understandable objections. All reasons to thank rather than insult those who are prepared to do it.
Or perhaps you feel that the whole system is wrong. Okay, we can all list its imperfections easily enough. But what would you put in its place? Absolute monarchy? Theocracy? Maoism? Because you can’t have a democracy without elected representatives.
My own sense is that MPs are unpopular for two reasons.
First, they are blamed for things that have been farmed out to quangos. Voters don’t want to hear that, for example, the procurement failures in the early stages of the pandemic were the responsibility of Public Health England and the NHS. They don’t want to hear that ministers can’t send illegal entrants to Rwanda.
Indeed, most voters want our institutions to be kept free from political control. They want to let the professionals get on with it. When those professionals do things they dislike, they blame MPs who, in an inversion of Baldwin’s quip about press barons, have responsibility without power.
Second, most of us hold at least some contradictory opinions. We applaud net zero, but complain about fuel bills. We defend the green belt, but moan about house prices. We dislike deregulation, but feel the economy is too sluggish. We insist that we put “people before profits”, but want a higher standard of living.
MPs must face these trade-offs. The rest of us have the luxury of attributing their compromises to dishonesty or corruption.
The global spread of liberal democracy after 1945 halted between 2010 and 2015, and is now in reverse. Is it possible that a contributing factor is the hostility aimed at elected representatives? That treating MPs as shysters puts off talented candidates? That insisting that democracy is a racket might become self-fulfilling, as in Russia?
Be careful what you wish for.