After George Osborne announced last week that the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay rises would be extended until 2015-16, there could hardly be a worse time for MPs to receive an inflation-busting increase of £10,000. But it is a move that David Cameron is powerless to prevent. When MPs founded the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and gave up control over their pay and conditions it was the intention of restoring public trust after the stain of the expenses scandal. But with IPSA likely to recommend a significant increase in their pay when it reports on Friday, that decision is about to return to haunt them.
The independent body is expected to propose that MPs' salaries rise from their current level of £65,738 to around £75,000, with IPSA head Ian Kennedy thought to favour an even greater increase to £85,000. If there is anything that could diminish the reputation of parliament even further, this is it. But ministers long abandoned the power to prevent such a PR debacle. As Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, explained on Sky News, "It's not in my control, it's in the control of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It isn't even in the control of MPs themselves."
For this reason, while David Cameron declared yesterday in Islamabad that it would be "unthinkable" for "the cost of politics or Westminster" to go up, he was ultimately unable to rule out a rise. The hope is that an increase in basic pay could be offset by cuts to MPs' pensions and other benefits. But this compromise is hardly likely to placate an austerity-scarred public.
Labour, meanwhile, has already signalled that it will oppose any increase above 1 per cent, bringing MPs into line with other public sector workers, and that Ed Miliband will pledge to scrap the rise if he becomes prime minister. As for Nick Clegg he declared in January, "I think it’s potty. It’s not going to happen, certainly if I’ve got anything to do with it."
The ultimate result of the row could be MPs reclaiming control over their pay. The often prescient David Davis (who commented, "I don't see how we could ever again even think of uttering the words 'all in it together' if we accepted this") recently suggested "that is what may end up happening".
It's worth remembering that a private survey of 100 MPs conducted by YouGov on IPSA's behalf found that 69 per cent thought they were underpaid, with an average salary of £86,250 recommended. On average, Tory MPs proposed a salary of £96,740, the Lib Dems £78,361 and Labour £77,322. A fifth suggested that they should be paid £95,000 or more. But would they have the chutzpah to vote accordingly in parliament? That seems unlikely.