“There is no way I could be an MP without my outside interests,” a backbencher recently told the Financial Times’ Sebastian Payne. “I’ve got kids and need the money for childcare.” An MP’s salary is set at £82,000 a year. The median UK full-time wage is around £31,000. The challenge of getting by on nearly three times that has not, thus far, nudged our leaders into doing something about the crippling cost of childcare.
Payne doesn’t specify which party this MP represents, but the fact they’re “new-ish”, combined with the attitude, suggests to me a Tory: MPs of other parties may sometimes be just as greedy, but they’re rarely quite so brazen about it. If so, they almost certainly voted with the government last September to cut £20 a week from Universal Credit payments. For one part of society, a household income nudging towards six figures – high enough to literally fall off the right-hand side of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ distribution chart – is considered inadequate. Taking a thousand quid a year from six million of the poorest households in the country is apparently fine.
This comparison has been widely, and furiously, made on social media, highlighted by a thousand angry people as a symptom of the Tories’ unforgivable hypocrisy. I’m not so sure it is. I think it’s something worse: simple, old-fashioned class politics.
It’s venal, sure, to believe that, if you aren’t allowed to run a whole bunch of lucrative side hustles, you’re not so interested in public service after all – even when that service nets you nearly three times the average wage. It’s immoral too, to take money away from the poorest in society at a time of economic crisis – a sign of that wider sickness in British society, in which we continue to act as if the only way to get the rich to do anything is to throw money at them, while the poor are motivated instead by the threat of becoming poorer still. (How is it that, somehow, a debate around lobbying and corruption has turned into one about whether MPs should be paid more?)
[See also: Can you afford childcare on an MP’s salary?]
For it to be hypocritical, though, the people who promote such policies would need to believe that they are bound by the same rules as those they govern – and this whole mess makes abundantly clear that they don’t think like that at all. A certain type of right-winger is genuinely capable of believing that £82,000 isn’t enough for them to raise a family on, while also believing that £23,000 – the benefit cap for those who live in Greater London – is if anything an overly generous sum for someone else to do so. Why? Because they’re not the same.
Once you realise the government thinks like this, many of the things that don’t seem to make sense about it fall away. Why would Boris Johnson, a man whose claims to be a “libertarian” have been swallowed by lazy political commentators without question since the mid-Noughties, crack down on the right to protest? Or oppose drug policy reform? Or side with the employers who want people back in the office over the staff who want to work from home? Or appoint Priti Patel as Home Secretary?
Easy: because his libertarian values only apply to people like him. For everyone else, he’s an authoritarian to the core. As Stephen Bush of this very parish once noted, Johnson’s guiding political philosophy is, “You don’t get to tell me what to do”. It comes with a heavy emphasis on the “me”.
We’ve heard a lot these past few years about the “metropolitan elite”, who voted Remain and don’t understand how real voters, of the sort who live in the Red Wall, feel. This was always nonsense: you can’t have an elite that includes 48 per cent of the population, and both the Leave and Tory voting blocks owe more to financially secure retired people than they do to anyone who still has to work for a living.
But the Tory right’s attempt to claim they, not Labour, are the real party of the working class has disguised something else: that they believe in a more insidious form of class politics than anyone else. They believe they’re better than us, worth more than us, not bound by the same rules as us – and they’re increasingly comfortable showing it. You really want to see the metropolitan elite in action? Go find a Tory MP.