Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Telegraph Column: Who'd Want to Be an MP?

This morning I have a lengthy comment piece in the Daily Telegraph arguing that it is up to the new breed of MPs to change Parliament for the better and restore trust in politics.

Admitting that you want to be an MP in the present climate marks you out as either a social misfit or someone suffering from delusions. I have almost got to the stage of feeling I should attend a meeting of Politicians Anonymous to bare my soul. My name is Iain and I want to be an MP. There. I've said it.

My family and friends think I am mad. Why would I want to subject myself to a life of constant public scrutiny over everything I say or do? Well, I take the view that if those of us who aspire to public service allow ourselves to be put off by the current breakdown in trust between voters and politicians, we are heading for a very slippery slope indeed.

The present situation over MPs' expenses is very serious, and the disconnect with voters is worse than it has ever been, but let's not kid ourselves that there was ever a golden age in relations between voters and MPs. Voters have always been suspicious of politicians and their motives, and that is a perfectly healthy state of affairs.

What has changed is that people now believe that all politicians have their snouts in the trough. We've gone back to the days of 18th-century rotten boroughs. All that's missing is Hogarth to capture the scene.

Last Saturday, I spent the morning talking to shoppers in Bracknell, where I am competing to become the Conservative candidate. Expenses came up in conversation several times, and I found myself having to try to prove that I wasn't an expenses criminal in the making. I showed my 10-point Pledge of Integrity, in which I promise, among other things, to live in the constituency, but not at the cost of the taxpayer. I promise not to claim for food or furniture. I promise not to promise what I cannot deliver and to tell constituents my real views at all times. And much more.

But the point is, I shouldn't have to spell this out. People should be able to take it for granted that their elected representatives will act with honour and candour at all times. Five years ago, as the Conservative candidate in North Norfolk, I issued a similar pledge as I could see which way the wind was blowing. This initiative did not go down well with several Tory MPs, nor with my fellow candidates. "Imagine where this might lead," said one. Indeed. Just imagine.

It is not often that I am five years ahead of my time, but now almost every Tory candidate is issuing a variation of the same pledge. Chloe Smith, the party's newest MP, made it a key feature of her by-election campaign in Norwich North.

Why do we have to issue a pledge of integrity? Because people think politicians don't know the difference between right and wrong. And nor does the system of scrutiny by which they are governed. It is tragicomical to think that several MPs who have done nothing wrong will have to pay back money for offences they didn't commit, while a former Home Secretary, who wrongly claimed £116,000 in second-home expenses gets off without paying anything. No wonder voters think politicians have the morals of an alley cat.

It would never occur to me to claim £400 a month for food I would have consumed anyway, let alone to charge the taxpayer for a television or garden furniture. My mother said to me recently: "Thank God you lost at the last election. You might have got caught up in all of this." I'd like to think I wouldn't have, but when the party whips tell you to make sure you claim for this, that or the other and that you should view it as a salary increase, you can see why some members did what they did.

For the new intake of MPs who will be elected in 2010, things must be different. Their levels of personal morality and probity will have to be beyond reproach. It is down to them to make the change, ensure things are done differently and to rebuild trust with the electorate.

I can't pretend I am not daunted by the challenge that lies ahead. But if David Cameron and George Osborne can face the economic thunderclouds that stand in their way, the rest of the troops must look to their own challenges, in particular the way they conduct themselves in Parliament and their constituencies.

Cameron recognises that the world has changed: 24-hour news, blogs and Twitter mean that the old command-and-control methods deployed so successfully by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson are now utterly redundant. In an age of increased individualism and easy communication, such attempts to control the message jar with the public's expectation of how politicians and political parties should operate. As effective as command and control may have been in the past, today it simply serves to weaken public confidence.

Nor will the next tranche of MPs be particularly easy to boss. The Tories know that after the next election there will be at least 150 new members on their benches in Parliament and maybe many more. Half of the Conservative Parliamentary Party won't be used to the ways of the whips. Their test will be this: will they succumb to the old ways of doing things and behave like sheep, or will they act as a group and insist on doing things differently?

In the past, it was easy for whips to threaten an MP who was intending to rebel. "We had thought of you as ministerial material, but if you vote this way, you'll end up on Standing Committee B on European Statutory Instruments." That was usually enough to divert the cowering member into the correct division lobby. But not everyone goes into politics determined to climb what Disraeli called the "greasy pole". Not everyone wants to be Prime Minister.

Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP for Clacton, has proved that you really can change things, even from the backbenches. It was he who got rid of Speaker Martin. Many of his ideas, in particular about devolving power from central government, have now been adopted as Conservative Party policy, but he steadfastly resists the allure of front bench office.

Those bent on career advancement will always be vulnerable to control by the party machine. Yet the rise of political primaries in selecting parliamentary candidates, the public appetite for direct debates between party leaders and the emergence of political blogging all point to a new age of politics in which individualism and independence are rewarded. David Cameron has recognised the public's desire for change by promising to curb the powers of the whips, enhance the role of select committees and give more time to backbenchers in debates.

The rise of political blogs is provocative to a political hierarchy determined to exercise control. My own blog, Iain Dale's Diary, provides me with tremendous reach and arguably gives me influence far beyond that enjoyed by the majority of current backbenchers.

I understand, therefore, the pressures that will be put upon me to stop blogging if I am selected as a parliamentary candidate. But my blog's success lies, at least in part, in the fact that I am not restricted by the party line and that I can say what I think on given issues without reference to the desires of party whips. To misquote William Hague, I am in the Conservative Party, but not run by the Conservative Party.

Unsurprisingly, that's not something that sits easily with aspirations for advancement within the party. Indeed, at the most senior levels of government such individualism stands opposed to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility.

If I am to look at myself in the mirror each morning, though, I must do it on my own terms, while recognising that there will always be limits beyond which I cannot venture. Can I successfully tread that tightrope? Time will tell. But if a party demonstrates a lack of trust in its own candidates' good judgment, the public will want to know why they should trust those candidates to exercise good judgment on their behalf.


AndyM said...

I see no shortage of candidates wanting to be PPCs.

As for the self-serving argument that you have to pay large salaries in order to attract the "right type of person" to be an MP, the incumbents are usually time-served party toads or advisors anyway, collecting their constituency seat and subsequent peerage in return for services previously rendered eg. Hewitt, advisor to Kinnock, and Lord (permitted space precludes his full titles) Mandelson.

If you want to be an MP, fair enough - but please don't dress it up as self-sacrificing public service. You're applying for a job with at least five years of safe tenure, top percentile salary and benefits and a self-regulated approach to workload and hours. And probably a nice political consulting job afterwards.

Maybe you'd be different.

Anonymous said...

Iain, lets get it straight why the public do not trust the politicians. They were nearly ALL milking the gravy train. AND THEY KNEW IT. The increase in expenses was encouraged when their salaries was low. But then their salary was doubled, did they reign back on the expenses, NO, they increased the cynicism with 2nd home swapping.

That is why they are despised!


DespairingLiberal said...

I think Hogarth would have enjoyed the scenes involving Ms Smith!

Simon said...

The trouble is that the upper echelons of all thre parties are stuffed with expense fiddlers, notably all three party leaders. There can be no new beginning until they are all gone. Do you think people are suddenly going to start trusting Cameron, Clegg and Brown just because they've paid back a few quid?

Paul said...

Most professionals make a similar pledge, except teachers and social workers, you wouldn't want to be bundled in with them.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the bloke who says I want to be a servant of the people normally mean I cannot hack it in the real world so politics will do.

DespairingLiberal said...

Yes, as usual AndyM hits the various nails on their heads. This rubbish about the need to attract good people and them all wanting to quit as MPs - I ask you! Martin Salter was at it yesterday on Jeremy Vine - apparently (sob) all of his best Labour pals on the backbenches are (whimper) fed up and looking for better jobs.

Yet strangely so far very few have actually departed (other than those like the Wintertons who are of a retiring age and already terribly well emolumated courtesy of the taxpayer and some particularly lavish expense claims over the years) and the waiting list to be an MP is as long as ever. What are all these marvellous jobs out there that are so much better than the Parliamentary sinecures?

Oh and while we're at it, what on earth is going on that this new review DOES NOT INCLUDE MORTGAGE OVERPAYMENTS which are the absolute flipping core of the matter! Literally!

Barnacle Bill said...

Quite frankly if I was David Cameron I would be threatening to withdraw the party whip from any MP who even publicly queried Sir Thomas Legg, let alone say they would contest any demands for repayment.
Any association with those from NuLabor who are squealing about having to put their hands in their pockets to give us back our money will only tar the Conservatives with the same tar brush in the eyes of the electorate.
Now is not the time for the Tories to be seen to be offering places in the lifeboats as NuLabor sinks under their own sleaze.

Mike Law said...

You started out okay but you lost me when you referred to politics as a career.

MPs, like local councillors, are representatives of their constituents and are remunerated as such from public funds.

There is no pre-job training, there are no exams to sit for professional qualifications. All that is required (for those who are members of political parties) is that the candidate is sufficiently capable of lucidly explaining and defending the party's ideology and is aware that they represent their constituents to the best of their abilities.

There are plenty of people out there (and I'd include myself in this) who would do this for less money than is currently on offer and who are as a capable as the current incumbents. Sadly, most are not members of a political party or, if they are, do not tick the current raft of boxes that are required by the party machine to be considered as candidates.

Vienna Woods said...

According to The Times this morning, Sir Thomas Legg said yesterday, “… interest statements and formal records were required by the original rules”. He added: “MPs who did not provide such evidence at the time will therefore be requested to do so now”.

So why all the bleating? It would appear to me that those who have failed to produce evidence in the form of proper statements of interest payments to mortgage lenders have only themselves to blame. And anyway, is it such a big deal for the individual MP to ask the Mortgage Lender for a certificate of payment for the time period in question? I think not, unless of course no mortgage existed,. The fear will replace bluster as Plod’s heavy steps approach!

Paddy Briggs said...


Far more importnat than all this integrity stuff (it is a necessary condition but far from a sufficient one that an MP has integrity) is brains, brawn and a caring attitude. Add an independent mind and a willingness to stand up to the Whips and not be compliant Party fodder.

John K said...


As you say (but don't pursue:

"when the party whips tell you to make sure you claim for this, that or the other and that you should view it as a salary increase, you can see why some members did what they did."

This is in my view the key to the whole expenses scandal, and one all the party leaderships have been conveniently ignoring.

The Whips of all parties were presumably acting on the orders of or at least with the permission of the party hierarchies.

They clearly told the MPs to "fill their boots". They must have implied that the MPS were untouchable and beyond scrutiny.

The problem is that history tells us that whenever people believe they are above the law they act in amoral ways: war criminals, torturers, Premiership football managers, whoever.

Clearly, if you (iain) become an MP you will be part of a completly new system, one with more morals and more accountability.

All well and good, that's how it should be.

However, the question remains how we (the public) can deal with the cheats of the last decade. As I understand it, the rules say that with certain exceptions their claims, especially the ACA, must relate to expenditure "wholly exclusively and necessarily" incurred in the performance of their duties as an MP.

If the expenses don't first meet that test they are not legitimate, regardless of thether they are sanctioned by the Whips, in the Green Book or nodded through by the fees office.

If members of a self-regulating system abuse that system, some other authority must intervene. Clearly Legg has to restrict himself to his narrow brief (and MPs are squealing about even that) and Cameron, Brown and Cleggg are not going to admit they are complicit in the whole fisaco, so the current Parliament will be tainted forever.

If it wasn't for the chaos and lack of continuity that would result, I'd almost favour prohibiting ALL the current MPs from standing again (including Cameron et al) unless they could demonstrate individually and publicly that all their expenses were "wholly, exclusively and necessarily" incurred for the purposes of undertaking their Parliamentary duties.


Robert Barnes said...

Iain, I think your 10 point plan is a great idea. Many people with varied amounts of experience applied to be Conservative PPCs (myself included) & were unsuccessful.
Parliament needs fresh faces not time-served party people.
Good luck in Bracknell on Saturday.

Alex said...

Being an MP is not the only way to undertake "public service", indeed there are many far more effective ways of doing so than being one of the 640+ lobby fodder, which implies that "public service" is less of an issue for most people.

Still not convinced of any real change said...

Jacqui Smith still remains the Achilles Heel in all this "We've cleaned up Politics" hype.

Question: "When is a shoe box not a shoe box?" - Answer: "when it Smith's first/second/third?? home".

James said...

I agree £64k on average is no way enough to be a Public Servant with the Public spotlight brought upon MP's.

Pay Peanuts get Monkeys.

Anonymous said...

Dear Iain,
You have no chance of being selected and you should take my opinion as a great compliment.
Do you really want to be part of the House of Whores?

Faustus said...

I don't care if my repeated question does annoy you, Iain.

But why do you want to be an MP?

The only reason you appear to have given is that you are honest.



neil craig said...

Yeah well the bastards insist on preventing us smoking in pubs, make us pay 4 times what we need to for electricity, prevent us enjoying the company of kids (& vice versa), bully us with lying ads about global warming, prevent us eating cheap GM food, prevent us eating salt etc etc.

So no complaints that these lying parasites have to jump through a few hoops too.

TrueBlueBlood said...

As I say on my Facebook friends page today, (Grassroots Trueblueblood if you want to add me), Parliament would be all the richer for Iain Dale.

I sincerely hope that Iain gets selected for Bracknell. He has been one of the key inspirations in my setting up a blog site.

A true gentleman.

Best wishes Iain. Fingers crossed for Bracknell

norman said...

We need to downsize the Parliament ( both houses) and restrict the number of MPs to about 400. Large country like USA does not have so many House of Reps and Senators.

We also need to restrict the number of terms for MPs and the PM to two, and produce a qualification tag that a candidate should have at least 5 years experience in the real world outside politics and trade unions. Many American House of Reps and Senators are lawyers, but what qualifications for example Chloe holds to be an MP? She is too young to know about the real world. This is professional party animal which we should never have.

It is a bit rich for the MPs to bleat about unfairness and Legg's retrospective application. If they have claimed their expenses to actually what is fair and proportionate and directly related to their work, there was no necessity for Legg. Anne Widdecombe's outburst against Legg's unfairness meant she has destroyed whatever credibility she had.

Legg should give media interviews and explain why he did what he did.
He should point out without naming people the substance of his letters and why he wanted MPs to return the money paid out. The voters will believe him, more than they believe these disgraceful MPs. Otherwise, he will be rubbished by these leeches.

Finally, Cameron has an opportunity in a life time. He should clearly distance himself from that greedy Grayling (sack him if necessary and bring back Davies, who in the scale of greed is low in the pecking order) who is not doing his job properly. Cameron should say what he will do to reform this shameful practices and how he will downsize the two greedy chambers. A strong manifesto commitment will give him millions of votes.

Desperate Dan said...

The main reason for not wanting to be an MP is that you would have to sit listening to the Gordon Brown's mind-numbing monotonal boreathons on a regular basis whereas the rest of us can just switch off.

pilgrim said...

Ian I must say that I was impressed by your voters pledges. I note that number 10 read "I will tell people my real views, even when I know they disagree with me".
Does this mean that you will be telling people that whilst the quiz on Conservative home indicated that you should be voting UKIP that you know you have more chance of becoming an MP in a party whose views are less matched to your own namely the Tories?

True Belle said...

My MP is a good listener and is very enthusiastic and energetic and a do-er. I will praise him where praise is due.

Meetings can be v/painful on the bum! I attend many, sadly there are some where I wish we could all walk around - TWITTER fashion- picking up points, discuss , disseminate, (if that is the correct word)then walk around and TWITTER then walk back to discuss and reach a conclusion again!

Circulating /walking meetings are a preference that not many have

They could be just the opposite of a Quaker meet- but by milling around cocktail party fashion/ timed/ and then moving on until everyone has had contact with some one in a crowded meeting of thirty or so will be more enervating.

Information exchanging and discussion has to be efficient- being an MP and leading a topic must be hell on earth.

Look how frustrating PMQs are?
Perhaps corridor politics /timed again may even become a sport. Like the radio programme JUST A MINUTE- no hesitation repetition or deviation-

Whoops , er yes I am too old to become an MP but I would have loved to have championed my country to the ends of the earth.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that you say in your article that you "promise... to live in the constituency" and yet have openly written online that you "will have a home which I will spend 3-4 nights a week in" in the constituency, and yet you will also continue to live in Tunbridge Wells!

Iain Dale said...

Andy M: 1. You are right. There is no shortage. 2. I didn't make the argument about large salaries. 3. I did not dress it up as a self sacrificing public service. 4. You are wrong about job tenure. An election can be called at any time. 5. I would never go back into political consulting!

Anonymous 9.28: I hope you would agree that I do not fall into the category!

Mike 9.49: I did not refer to politics as a career. I said "Those bent on career advancement will always be vulnerable to control..."

Paddy Briggs 10.07: Did you read my article? That was the main point of the second half of it!

Faustus 11.28: I couldn't give a damn if you pose the question repeatedly. I've talked about it often enough both here and elsewhere. You seem to deliberately ignore everything I say on the subject for your own reasons. I'm not sure what they are. But just for the record, I want to do it because there are national and local issues I care about which are being ignored, it's the only way to effect real change, I think I would be a very good advocate for my constituents and am a good problem solver, and I want to speak up for people whose case merits it. There are plenty of other things I could say but that should be enough for you. But I bet it isn't.

Pilgrim 1.06. The day I let myself be defined by a quiz on ConHome will be a very sad day indeed! If I agreed with UKIP's stances more than Conservative policies I'd support UKIP, I don't. End of story.

Anonymous 2.14: I have been very open about this both in my selection speech and in the local Bracknell media as well as in my literature. I will have a home in Bracknell. Ideally I would move everything lock stock and barrell immediately upon selection. But that's just not possible due to my family circumstances. My partner's 82 year old father lives with us in Tunbridge Wells. I simply cannot expect him to move from the area he has lived in all his life. Anyone else with similar family circumstances will understand and I hope others will too. So yes, I will have a home in Bracknell and I will spend 3-4 nights a week in it. The other three nights I will sleep in Tunbridge Wells. Does that affect my ability to represent Bracknell? Of course it doesn't. But if people take a different view, then they should vote for one of the others.

Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt, I won't have a flat in London and I won't be claiming any second home allowance.

Anonymous said...

I would like to take issue with your assertion that individualism is incompatible with collective responsibility.

That's only true if you allow your ego to overcome your honour. Plenty of people in the business world are able to go into a meeting, argue their case, and if they lose, proceed with the group decision. It's usually called "being grown up"

Don't let 12 years of this revolting Labout crap be your model for how government usually behaves. Instead treat it with the contempt that it's had for us, the people.

Mike Law said...


Fair point - so can we assume that you don't see politics as a career?

I do think that you'll make a fine MP; if there's one thing that I've picked up about you while following this blog is that, if you are convinced you're right, you stick to your guns but you are also open to consider alternative points of view and you actually acknowledge when you're wrong.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...


I recently asked you about what type of Conservative MP you would be. Specifically regarding possible conflict between 'your' views and the party's policy. I've since looked back at the question (many thanks for the response) and feel I made a poor hash of it - my apologies.

However, I think your article here addresses in a much more convincing way exactly how you see the future functioning of new MP's.

I'm encouraged by it. I think we need more Carswells and Hannans who recognise the power held on the back benches, Hopefully the Dales of the next parliament will be among them.


John Moss said...

MPs should be paid £200k a year as a fee to cover everything from salary and pension to office costs, second homes and travel.

They should be required to set themselves up as small businesses and then the Inland Revenue can adjudicate on whether their expenses are legitimate or not on the same basis as they would for any small business.

They would get short shrift on duck houses and wifes/daughters as "diary secretaries" from the sort of tax inspector who used to audit our business!

Steve S. said...

the only problem with your pledge is that it is only a piece of paper with words on it. There are plenty of people, who will promise anything to anyone. Once the deal is signed & closed they tend to quickly forget about all those inconvenient pledges. Just look at the Labour party...

So, I have two questions:
How can you convince us that you will stick to your pledges?
How can we hold you to account if you don't?

Iain Dale said...

Steve, you're right, but I can't think of any better way of pledging to conduct myself properly. If you have a better idea, do let me know!

If I don't stick to it you have the opportunity of voting me out.

I spent a long time thinking about how to do this and what to promise. I recognise that people view all politicians with suspicion nowadays, but I hope in me they will have someone who will live up to their promises and not let them down.

Faustus said...

You won your bet, Iain.

But you have my best wishes, whatever your reasons are for standing.


Joe Public said...

Is there any other job that offers the opportunity for fiddling tens of thousands of pounds, and when caught red-handed, gets told to simply apologise?

No forced repayment, no financial penalty, retains job. And may still yet receive a peerage.

No wonder public contempt of politicians is so high.

Steve S. said...


Personally I think placing a single tick in a box once every 5 years is no longer sufficient to hold MP's accountable these days. That said, I have read your blog for a while, and I am inclined to think you would make a good MP and wish you well in your candidacy.

As to ensuring that you keep to your pledges - perhaps something along the line of an additional pledge. You appoint a trusted arbiter and if at the end of your tenure you have been found to have not honoured the spirit of your pledges, then you agree to pay £XXX amount to a worthy charity of your choice...

A bit of a gimmick, but perhaps worthy of consideration.

Anonymous said...

My word you think highly of yourself.

Andrew F said...

You like your cliches. It's such bad writing.

Dimoto said...

British MPs have always been a dodgy lot, with the "leaderships" often amongst the most dodgy.
Representative democracy is a rough old business which attracts an abundance of chancers and opportunists.

This whole mess is 20% MPs going too far on their expenses, 20% feckless and doomed MSM hype, and 60% the ugly X-factor-Big Brother-Princess Di sentimental, mob-rule Britain of 2009.

It is typical of Brown that he set this whole thing up, and now it has come back to bite him ... again.

This country is chocker with envy-voyeur culture and synthetic outrage. Keep feeding it and eventually it will destroy the fragile underpinnings of stable, representative government.

info said...

I think it's about time common sense prevailed, and Mackay and his cronies are remove their burden on the public purse - if you feel the same, please join us at

Thatsnews said...

The problem is that if someone can't claim for more than £2,000 for a cleaner, that means the cleaner would be on a weekly wage of £38.00 a week.

Why not pay for it out of their own wages? And run two households on one salary?

The problem is that if we are not careful the only people who could afford to become MPs will be those who are wealthy or who are in the pockets of trade unions.

Geoffrey Woollard said...

"I am in the Conservative Party, but not run by the Conservative Party."

Very commendable, Iain, but, assuming that you are elected, I fear that they (the Conservative Party) will make you toe the line.

What we need are more true independents.

Auntie Flo' said...

Who'd want to be an MP?

Me, and thousands of others like me, who love our country and who believe we could do better than so many of the current crop.

I'd do it for £60K a year and no expenses because it would be a huge privilege to serve my country.

So, watch out, the greedy ones among you, because hundreds of us might be provoked into doing just that - as independents...

...IF you don't pull your bl**dy socks up and rein in your lust for money and power and to control the lives of Joe and Jill public out here to serve yourselves.