Life on £82,000 a year is, apparently, “pretty grim”. At least according to 77-year-old Sir Peter Bottomley, father of the House of Commons, Member of Parliament since 1975. Though, in his 46 years of continuous service, one imagines life has probably not been grimmer than during the past few days, after he had the temerity to suggest MPs might be due a pay rise.
Look, these are messy questions. It hardly needs repeating that some MPs on 82 grand are frankly stealing a living, while just as many more are worth every penny.
If you’re a 25-year-old earning 25 grand and you hear an MP saying that life on three times that is “pretty grim” then, well, you might be pretty angry. But then, there aren’t many jobs where, in effect, you get the same on day one as the guy who’s been doing it for 46 years. If you’re an angry 25-year-old on 25 grand, you might also vaguely be hoping to be on more than 82 grand if you stick at it for 46 years.
Ah! You say. But you can become a minister! Or even a shadow minister! Or you can chair a select committee! But what do you become then? A careerist! And what do the public hate more than anything? Those MPs who’ll say or do anything just to get ahead. And why do we hate it? Because we like to think that it’s a democracy and we, the public, are these people’s bosses. Which we are, but not in any meaningful sense.
If they do exactly what we expect of them, if they work hard, stay true to themselves, are loyal only to their conscience, and as such get absolutely nowhere, then what happens next? We, the public might be their boss, but they can’t very well pitch up at our office door every Christmas and say, “Hello Mr and/or Mrs General Public. Sorry to bother you, I know you’re busy but, I just, well, oh never mind I shouldn’t even ask really but, well, erm, I’ve worked so hard this year and I’ve done everything you asked. That disabled ramp outside the library is all sorted now, and I filled in that pothole on Wallenger Avenue on my day off and it was actually my child’s birthday but it had to be done and I know I didn’t stop Brexit like you kept emailing me about but there was a referendum and the people voted and anyway, look, what I’m trying to say is that you know everything’s getting more expensive and I’m always working away and the cost of childcare is so high and I was just wondering if there was any chance that I could maybe have just a small pay rise?”
And even if they could, they all know the answer they’d get, which would be to do one.
And in any event, what’s needed is not another pay rise but a whole rethink of the system. How it’s structured, the way it’s done. And I’ve had a think and here’s what I’ve come up with. Pay all MPs a million a year. All of them. All 650 of them. A million quid. But there are some catches.
The £1m is not exactly a salary, but more a starting prize, and then the parliamentary year would operate rather like The Million Pound Drop with Davina McCall, with fines, forfeits and punishments payable for poor quality behaviour.
Here are just some of the things that could and indeed should whittle that pot down to an acceptable size:
All tweets – £10. If you’ve got something important to say, then 10 quid is worth it. If you think the world needs to see your quite literally quarter-baked attempt at toad-in-the-hole on a Wednesday night then fine, but there’s a price to pay.
Bad tweets – £5,000. Hard to implement, of course. Not many people do bad tweets on purpose. When Zarah Sultana MP filmed herself performatively throwing a Tory MP’s election leaflet in the bin, she clearly didn’t know that the election in question was for membership of a select committee, in which MPs are only able to vote for MPs from other parties, making her look utterly ridiculous.
Or when Henry Smith MP did a hilarious tweet with a picture of a statue that should be torn down, that statue being a giant bust of Karl Marx, he probably didn’t consider that the monument in question was the man’s actual gravestone, and that it’s just not really the done thing to go tearing down people’s graves. But, in the eyes of the law, ignorance is no excuse, and you do sometimes have to be cruel to be kind.
As to who would decide what qualifies as a bad tweet? There are some constitutional complexities there for sure but, well, The Million Pound Drop itself has been cancelled so Davina McCall’s free, and she’s got plenty of common sense so why not?
Speaking in a House of Commons debate – £1,000. Now I can see how you might think it’s a bit daft to punish them for doing their actual job but it’s entirely fair and reasonable. I have listened to more House of Commons debates than most people, and the times on which someone’s got something to say that’s actually worth hearing are rare enough that the person saying it will be glad to part with the comparatively small sum involved.
Plus, that staggeringly tedious clique of men, led by Sir Christopher Chope of upskirting fame, who have made it their self-appointed duty to talk out all of the private members bills every other Friday morning can carry on if they choose, but they’ll have to accept whittling down their wages to almost nothing.
Going on TV – £10,000. If you’re a member of the cabinet, or even shadow cabinet, it’s entirely right and proper that you should go on television to be held to account for your actions. But if you’re, say, Andrew Bridgen, and you want to go on Sky News for the eighth time that day, to give your opinions on any subject they choose to name, to the extent where you somehow end up defending blatant Islamophobia on the grounds that motorbike helmets are intimidating, then it’s only fair that your winter ski trip should be at risk.
Buzzwords – £1,000. There is, quite rightly, nothing stopping a political party running a slogan-based advertising campaign. “Build Back Better”, “Strong and Stable”, “Coalition of Chaos” and so on. But if you wish to use your public office as a vehicle through which to augment that campaign, parroting out its messaging in a select committee, a conference speech, in the House of Commons, a newspaper op-ed, on the radio, or wherever it may be, then the appropriate fee must be paid.
Asking a sycophantic question in the House of Commons – £1,000,000. “Does the prime minister agree with me that he is the best thing since sliced bread?” Yes, I’m sure he does. But the public very much agree that this sort of thing is a complete affront to the basic dignity of politics. The only approach is zero tolerance and quite right too.
If, at the end of all that, there are any MPs left on more than £81,000 then no one can deny they’ve earned it.