Now is not the time to raise MPs' pay

There is a case for raising pay, but Brown cannot make it in these tough times

Is Gordon Brown really considering raising MPs' pay to appease their anger over expenses curbs? At a time when the Labour government has promised to impose the most punitive public-sector pay freeze since the dying days of the Callaghan government, this would be a disastrous decision.

There is a case for increasing MPs' salaries but now would be the worst possible time to make it. Simultaneous cuts in ministerial salaries would ensure the taxpayer doesn't lose a penny, but that would be overlooked entirely by the public. Such a move would give succour to the populist far right and risk alienating even more voters.

And yet, and yet . . . the pragmatic argument for raising MPs' pay remains persuasive. Harry Cohen, the left-wing Labour MP, was at least honest enough to describe expenses as a de facto salary increase (one that MPs, crucially, were not taxed on). And if our parliamentarians really want to spend £10,000 a year on gardening, then scaling back expenses and raising salaries would allow them do so at their own cost.

A future wage increase could be paid for by reducing the size of our bloated parliament. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 543 MPs. We, with a population of 61 million, have 646s. Indeed, only the Chinese have more MPs, and they have 20 times our population. David Cameron's pledge to cut the number of seats in the Commons by 10 per cent to 585 is doesn't go far enough. Reducing it to, say, 400 would allow those who remained to be paid more at no extra cost.

But that's not an argument to make in these straitened times, and Brown should avoid what would be a politically toxic move.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The chlorine chicken row is only the beginning – post-Brexit trade deals won't be easy

The real problem isn't the bureaucracies of the EU, but the fears of voters.

What's wrong with a little bit of chlorine in the chicken? That's the question splitting the cabinet as far as a US-UK trade deal goes. It also goes to the heart of Britain's post-Brexit dilemma.

As far as public health goes, both chicken slaughtered and sold the American way and chicken in the United Kingdom and the European Union are just as hygienic by the time they end up in supermarkets. But banning chlorine-washing means that the entire production chain, from farm to abattoir, has to be cleaner in the UK and the rest of the EU than in the States, where farmers know that no matter what happens to the chicken, that chlorine bath will absolve all manner of sins.

The EU's own research concedes that there is no public health difference. The problem, both in the rest of the bloc and the UK, is voter resistance: among French farmers and shoppers across the EU27. We all know how British people are about animal cruelty – not that they're so het up they won't actually eat them you understand – and any change that makes it easier to treat animals worse is going to be politically painful for the government.

In the long-term, changing our regulations to US standards also makes it harder to sell into the European Union. It's not a choice where you can have the best of both worlds but one where ultimately one market may preclude the freest use of the other.

And without wishing to offend any poultry farmers among our readership, this is a fairly small issue as far as the average British voter goes, even allowing for the UK's thing for animals. Just wait until things like “the NHS” start to be used in the same paragraph as the words “trade deal”.

One criticism that Brexiteers make of the EU is that it takes such a long time to strike trade deals. But the real problem isn't the bureaucracies of the EU – but the fears of voters. A cabinet clash over chicken is only going to be the beginning. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.