Will MPs reclaim the power to vote against a pay rise?

Parliament's decision to give up the right to set MPs' pay looks unwise as IPSA prepares to recommend an increase of £10,000.

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. 

Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband during a reception to mark the inaugural Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

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