The quandary was an unusual one. A parliamentary colleague was about to head off for his annual summer cruise with his wife. On previous occasions he had enjoyed informing other holiday makers about his job as an Honourable Member of the House of Commons.
But this year was different. This was 2009 and The Telegraph was still publishing the unredacted details of MPs’ expenses, with all the consequent public anger at, and contempt for, the people they’d sent to Parliament to represent them.
My friend sought our advice as to how he should, when asked, explain what he did for a living. He wanted to be able to claim a more respectable profession. Unfortunately he was too young to pass himself off as a Nazi war criminal.
My personal nadir came when my (now late) father, who had beamed with pride when I was first elected in 2001, was asked by a friend, eight years later, what his son did for a living. Dad was too embarrassed to answer truthfully and quickly changed the subject.
And here we are, six years on, and the people who have learned nothing from the past are not, for the most part, the public; despite the petitions and indignant online rants, most voters are not noticeably bothered by the proposal from Ipsa, the independent body put in charge of MPs’ salaries and expenses following the Telegraph’s exposé, that members of the Commons be granted a one-off ten per cent rise.
Even in the media, sensible journalists and columnists recognise that democracy costs, and that it was the puritanical capping of MPs’ pay by successive governments that led directly to an over-generous, opaque and easily-exploited expenses regime as compensation.
No, it is the MPs, not their electors or the media, who are behaving disgracefully this time round. Not all of them, to be sure. Not even a large minority. But a substantial number of headline-seeking, hand-wringing Uriah Heeps, far too ’umble to take such a rise when others in the public sector are making do with far less.
It’s not enough to oppose the increase; these hair-shirted representatives of the people must do so publicly and noisily, for the benefit of the national and, of course, their local, media. Any increases will be given to charity, they proudly proclaim, in carefully crafted sadness and anger.
What else should we expect? That MPs look at the facts of the case? Accept that this settlement is largely revenue-neutral, that almost as much is being taken away in MPs’ pension entitlement as is being given to them in their pay packet?
They have a golden opportunity here: to take the pay rise now, at the start of a five-year parliament, at the point furthest away from another polling day, by which the annual inflation-limited increases promised by Ipsa will have pulled a heavy veil over today’s controversy. For the first time in decades, and arguably forever after, the poisonous issue of MPs’ pay will be a non-issue and of no interest to anyone other than MPs’ and their families.
But such a prize would come at too high a price for some, for in order to accept it they would have to forego that most valuable of commodities: publicity and the praise of the noisy but largely irrelevant anti-political classes.
Such a shame. I just hope that alert journalists will pursue the puritanical tendency in parliament, and will seek details of exactly how much they’re handing over to local charities – not just in 2015, but in every single year to come. Maybe they’ll yet come to regret the cost of a few days of smug self-satisfied self-publicity.
This article was originally published by the Telegraph Online.