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Tuesday, February 24, 2015 

The politicians we deserve.

You know, part of me really wants to look at the latest cash for access scandal, or whatever it is you want to call it, see the MPs ensnared, indulge in a bit of schadenfreude and leave it at that.  Couldn't have happened to a nicer couple of politicians, barring Nadine Dorries, John Hemming or a whole load of others you could name.  Good old "Rockets" Rifkind, who made a career out confusing people into thinking his innate pomposity was gravitas, and had never seemed happier than as chairman of the government's committee for whitewashing the intelligence agencies.  As for Jack Straw, what more is there to be said for the torture authorising (allegedly), prison building, dictator fawning war criminal?  Well plenty, but let's not extend ourselves too much.

Except the whole thing's a bit well, underwhelming, isn't it?  If you thought the previous sting by the same people was lacking in evidence of any wrongdoing as opposed to the suggestion there could be in the future, which memorably saw Stephen Byers describe himself as a "cab for hire", this one's even less convincing.  Dispatches could barely fill its half-hour time slot with the secret recordings of Rifkind n' Straw, and instead went to the expense of showing what both look like in cartoon form, presumably to eat up some time.  As previously, it was more they looked dodgy as filmed by hidden cameras, as most people will shot at an angle, something Newsnight dared to suggest, than anything else.  Then we heard the familiar boasts and exaggerations, which an awful lot of people will make if there's the possibility of some lucrative work in the offing.  Straw had "gone under the radar" to a former Ukrainian prime minister for a client, using a mixture of "charm and menace", neither of which are qualities you'd normally associate with the Blackburn MP.

Rifkind was even more effusive.  You'd be surprised how "much free time" he has, despite his parliamentary commitments, and in any case, he considers himself self-employed rather than, err, a public servant.  Not apparently realising the seriousness of having seen pound signs before his eyes, he then went on the Today programme and informed the listeners of BBC Radio Middle Class you can't expect people of his calibre to get by on a piffling £67,000 a year.  Most probably nodded sagely and then switched over to Grimmy.

"Rockets" has since claimed he's been terribly stitched up, and that he wouldn't for a moment have dreamed of lobbying on behalf of a Chinese firm in his capacity as an MP.  Instead his suggestion of contacting ministers without revealing his motives was to be done in a private capacity, one would have to assume, or at least would have been his explanation to the standards commission, since rendered fairly academic by his decision to stand down at the election.  Straw has long since announced his "retirement", although he clearly believed he was due to receive a peerage, as he would be able to help "even more" as a Lord.  There is perhaps a more prima facie case of breaking the rules for Straw in that he hosted the meetings in his parliamentary office, but hardly the most serious when compared to, ooh, signing off on the rendition of people back to Gaddafi's torture dungeons.

It's never so much the details in these exposes though as it is the sheer fact MPs have been caught looking comprised at all.  It just invites the "snouts in the trough" and "all the same" lines we've heard beyond the point of tedium.  It's also distinctly odd that we have such double standards over individual MPs' interests as opposed to those of their parties: conferences barring the Lib Dems' long since ceased being about policy and instead became an opportunity for a week of lobbying.  The Conservatives for their part advertise how they can be influenced, as pointed out before: just the £50,000 "donation" gets you access to the Leader's Group, where you can schmooze with Cameron and Osborne of an evening a couple of times a year.  Just the other week they were auctioning off "prizes" such as going for a run with Iain Duncan Smith, shoe-shopping with Theresa May, or a back-scuttle in a bus stop with Boris, as though such activities would be the only subject up for discussion.  Everyone points and laughs for a day or so, a few say how corrupt it all is, and then it's back to normal.

Only as we're so close to the election Labour's seized on the idea of trying to get an advantage where there almost certainly isn't one.  Miliband's suggestion of imposing a cap on earnings from outside interests to 10 or 15% of an MP's salary seems to be neither one thing or the other: it won't put an end to the claims of MPs' being bought, while it could have the perverse effect of stopping MPs from being able to work as barristers, GPs, or carrying on running a family business as some currently do.  As suspect and self-serving as the yelps from those extremely well renumerated for directorships and "advice" to businesses are, the last thing we want is a further professionalising of politics when that other cry is MPs don't have a clue as they've never had an ordinary job.

It's easy to be cynical about politics, as this blog proves on a daily basis.  £67,000 a year for working a number of hours broadly comparable to that of a teacher is more than a decent wage, not far off 3 times the national average.  Or at least it seems that way on the surface.  Factor in constituency work though, the arcane Commons practices currently being spotlighted in the BBC2 series, the way so many seem to think the absolute worst of their representatives, not always wrongly, and how in the current media environment you are essentially never off duty as it were, your every move and comment there to be scrutinised, filmed and tweeted, and you'd have to be either a masochist or a true believer in the idea of public service to want to be an MP.

This isn't of course to excuse Rifkind or Straw, god forbid, who proved to be just as gullible and potentially grasping as plenty of other mortals, but the last thing needed is further restrictions on individuals when the entire system of political funding is so open to abuse. Hence why it's possible something akin to Miliband's proposal could yet become law while all sides will continue to prevent the reform of party funding.  Frankly, we often get the politicians we deserve.

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