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Flat-footed Cameron is being outmanoeuvred by Miliband on MPs' pay

Just as Gordon Brown was outplayed by Cameron during the expenses scandal, so the PM risks suffering the same fate now.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband in Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

After focusing for months on the "cost-of-living crisis" and the dramatic fall in real wages, Ed Miliband is more aware than most of how damaging the spectacle of MPs receiving an 11% pay rise (taking their annual salary to £74,000) could be. In an attempt to resolve the issue, ahead of the expected announcement by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) on Thursday, Miliband has now called for cross-party talks to be held.

A Labour spokesman said:

If the package of proposals being set out by Ipsa is as reported it cannot go ahead when people are going through the biggest cost-of-living crisis for a generation.

Therefore we are asking the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for a cross-party approach that recognises the current economic circumstances where workers in the public and private sectors are going through such difficult times.

A Labour source told me that the hope was that a united front by the three main parties against the pay rise might persuade IPSA, which was awarded control over MPs' pay and conditions following the expenses scandal, to think again.

But Miliband's offer has been quickly rebuffed by Cameron, with a Downing Street spokesman commenting: "There is no need for cross-party talks on this issue because we have already made clear that there shouldn’t be pay rises at a time of public sector pay restraint." (The Mail also reports on irritation that "the Labour gambit came as Mr Cameron was boarding a plane to fly to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.") 

Asked yesterday whether Cameron would accept the rise (Miliband and Clegg have both unambiguously stated that they will not), No. 10 similarly said: "Any proposal that they make will be reviewed in mid-2015, so it doesn’t arise. The Prime Minister’s longstanding position is that the cost of politics should go down, not up. He doesn’t think that MPs’ pay should go up while public sector pay is being restrained."

This raises the possibility that the rise could take place after 2015 if the 1% cap on public sector pay increases (a real-terms cut) is lifted, although given the government's vow to maintain austerity until at least 2018-19 this seems unlikely. Rather, it appears that Cameron is simply determined to kick the issue into the post-election long grass. But given the inevitable outrage when IPSA recommends an 11% rise on Thursday, it is questionable how long he will be able to maintain this ambiguity. Just as Cameron outmanoeuvred a flat-flooted Gordon Brown during the expenses scandal, so he is now in danger of suffering the same fate at the hands of Miliband.

With Tory MPs more likely to believe that they should be paid more (according to a private poll carried out by YouGov), more likely to have given up lucrative careers elsewhere (although many, of course, maintain second jobs) and privately resentful of Cameron's personal wealth ("it's alright for him", is a common refrain), the PM's hand is notably weaker than Miliband's. Conservative MP Charles Walker spoke for a significant number yesterday when he said: "I've been working since I left university for 25 years and I have never turned a pay rise down and I don't intend to start turning any future pay rises down." 

But if Cameron wants to avoid handing Labour a golden opportunity to portray him as "out-of-touch", he will need to override this opposition and say what he has so far not: I will not accept the rise and I encourage others to do the same. 

Meanwhile, Labour MP John Mann has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for parliament to instruct IPSA to limit the increase to 1% in line with the rest of the public sector. Here's the full text: 

That this House notes the decision in the Spending Review announced to Parliament on 26 June 2013 to restrict public sector pay increases to 1 per cent; endorses the view that what is good enough for the workers is good enough for the politicians; and instructs the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to enforce public sector pay policy in its decisions over hon. Members' pay.

Given how many MPs privately believe that they should be paid more (69% according to that poll by YouGov, with an average salary of £86,250 recommended), it will be worth watching to see how many nevertheless sign Mann's motion.