"In Parliament, I've seen grown men cry over MPs' expenses"

If you think MPs are over-paid, think again. An anonymous MP explains how a flat salary and little chance of ministerial perks cause misery over childcare costs and mortgage payments.

In the pig swill of Westminster something new is stirring.

After two decades of MPs arguing for more pay colleagues are falling over themselves to forego any pay rise, ever. Not now. Not in the future, but please let me keep my pension is the sotto voce subtext.

“I’m happy with my salary,” a headline screams. This young mum will soon learn that childcare costs when you work to midnight will eat it up. Hope she’s got an overdraft or a rich husband. Nick Clegg starts an inevitable Dutch auction by pledging to forego any rise. Easy for him now his rich wife doesn’t have to pay those private school fees after all.

There’s a sigh of inevitability from colleagues as each leader comes out to condemn any pay rise. They’re always first in the queue (we’d be hammered if he didn’t, said one advisor) these leaders with their generous Government salaries, rich wives and ministerial cars.

But this time less anger from the rank and file. And in a sign that the troughs of mud covered expenses have been well and truly emptied there is a palpable uncomfortable feeling about being paid more.

The impending election fills us with dread as candidates will be pressured to declare that they will forgo the pay rise. Easy for the candidate with no hope of winning. A different matter if you have a mortgage to pay. “It’s our job,” says one colleague plaintively.

Tory A-listers are still reeling. Many sacrificed good careers with prospects for a flat salary and little chance of a ministerial job. I’ve seen grown men in tears because of the system of expenses that pillories MPs and makes many afraid to claim.

Others say that you need money to do this job now, “I’m lucky I did well in a previous life so I don’t need to claim anything”, one told me sanguinely in the coffee queue. Not uncommon. And there’s the female MP whose husband gave up his job to do the childcare because it doesn’t pay him to work. Not uncommon with many families but most people imagine MPs can afford full time nannies. The reality is far from that for most.

The young families are struggling the most. If they have a London mortgage or rent (and as we spend half a week in London a number do) the maths just don’t work.

Bravely Mark Pritchard sticks his head above the parapet to declare that Parliament must not be just for the privileged. Multi-millionaire and hero of the working man Adam Afriyie has been brave (and rich) enough to repeat this for three years.

All parties unite in a bit of “why do we do the job” “how often do you think about giving up?” moaning. Well, there’s a long queue of people keen to take it on. Though in some seats the shortlists these days are very short. The reality check about the money and the prospects increasingly makes wannabes think twice. And many walk away.

Pritchard and Afriyie are right. This place must not become a place just for the privileged. Richer MPs will forego more pay because they can. The poorer will because they feel guilty. And this is why we set up an independent body to take the decision out of our hands.

There is one unifying cry – we created the monster that is now putting us  through this prolonged agony of a pre-announcement, a speech and then (oh wait for the abuse) a public consultation before any decision.

So we are to blame for a body which pays its communications official £20,000 a year more than MPs.

There is never a good time to increase MPs’ pay but doing a catch-up every five years will always mean it is too much. So why isn’t the salary linked to another job that the public understand? Should MPs be offered two thirds of a GP’s salary or three quarters? And while we’re at it let’s stop the lunacy that describes employing staff to respond to constituents as “expenses”. If anything underlines the other worldliness of Parliament, that does. 

Now read Eleanor Margolis explain why we need our MPs to be less "moaty" - ie professionals, not wealthy hobbyists.

 

The Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder