Why being an MP has never been so unappealing

Business chief and former deputy leader of Lancashire County Council Frank McKenna fears Parliament could face a brain drain as more MPs look for a future outside of Westminster

Monday, 3rd April 2017, 11:29 am
Updated Saturday, 8th April 2017, 10:29 pm
Frank McKenna

It is easy to see why George Osborne is being condemned from all quarters since announcing his decision to become the Editor of the London Evening Standard. Even those ‘close friends of’ who have expressed lukewarm support have tended not to have been name checked. However, taking away the personality for a moment, is it not a sign of the increasing impotency of the House of Commons and the role of a Member of Parliament that has motivated the former Chancellor’s decision to become a newspaper editor rather than financial greed?

Recently, Labour MP Tristram Hunt gave up his relatively safe Stoke-on-Trent seat to become V&A director. His colleague Jamie Reed, who represented Cumbria constituency Copeland, resigned as an MP in order to join Sellafield Ltd as its new head of development and community relations.

Also on the Labour benches, Leigh’s Andy Burnham, and Walton’s Steve Rotheram are plotting their escape, seeing the mayoral roles in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region respectively as more attractive and influential roles than those they currently occupy.

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Most parliamentary time in future months is likely to be dedicated to a policy the vast majority of parliamentarians disagree with, Brexit. Add to that an increasing feeling that outside of the cabinet an MP in 2017 is little more than a glorified councillor, then I think we will see a good number of MPs considering their futures and their career options before the next election.

Why should that matter? Well, I would suggest the calibre of our elected representatives has diminished quite significantly during the past three parliamentary terms. It is becoming difficult to name cabinet members, let alone MPs. Shadow Cabinet members? Forget it. In terms of influence, it is the rabid right with their 52 per cent mandate which appears to have the ear of Theresa May and the government. On the opposition benches, the majority are in a state of permanent depression, knowing they have a lame duck leader, and, for the moment at least, a lame duck party.

If scores of them decide there is more to life than this, then who can blame them. And, just to be clear, for the job they do, the scrutiny they suffer and the sacrifice they make in terms of family life, the salary of £75,000 is woefully short of what good MPs are worth. I haven’t even mentioned the danger MPs now must be mindful of, following the murder of Jo Cox, and the terrorist attack on their place of work last week.

The expenses scandal, the ‘elites’ nonsense which has become part of the establishment’s anti-establishment narrative and the lack of respect an MP now commands form the general public, are all part of a landscape which will inevitably lead to most people ruling out a future as a parliamentarian. There is an old saying that, when it comes to politicians, the public gets what it deserves. We need to be very careful that the road we are on does not lead us to a commons chamber simply filled with foot soldiers and voting-fodder, with an executive making all the decisions without any rigorous challenge and scrutiny. As for ‘six jobs George’, well I’m finding it hard to get overly excited about his latest career venture. The idea it is a betrayal of his constituents is a joke. Do people honestly believe high profile cabinet members undertake casework?

As one of the more salubrious parts of the north west, my guess is the good folk of Tatton prefer an MP who has influence to keep down their tax bills, rather than an MP who can chase the social security over their benefits claim. Indeed, at his Conservative Association meeting last weekend, Osborne exited relaxed and smiling, having been given a unanimous vote of confidence by Tatton’s Tories. Is this the beginning of the end for George’s political career and with it the dilution of his Northern Powerhouse project? I would suggest otherwise. His latest job offers him a powerful vehicle to express views and ideas he supports – and London is as keen to lobby for devolved powers as northern cities and counties are. My guess is, as the Evening Standard argues for more of a say for Londoners, George will be arguing ‘What’s good for London is good for Manchester’. The ‘soft’ power that comes from his new post is also significant. His Tatton seat disappears with boundary changes at the next election. If he is to find a ‘safe’ Tory seat in 2020, then he could do worse than staying in the public eye through additional media appearances which will come his way via his editorship of the Standard. The notion that Conservatives, either MPs or party members, will be so outraged by his latest adventure that they will punish him by ending his career in the Commons is as fanciful as Brexiteers suggesting the NHS will benefit from a zillion pound additional investment once we leave the EU.

On a personal level, I have no doubt George still wants a political career. He wants to be Prime Minister. However, for now, Osborne sees an editorship of a major media title as a better platform for influence than his parliamentary position. It’s difficult to argue with him.

* Frank McKenna is founder and chief executive of Downtown in Business. Before then he was a full time Labour politician, leader of the NW Regional Assembly, and a Parliamentary assistant.