Improper conduct

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 2 March 2015 in Editor's note

Something is still rotten at Westminster. And the debate has now switched from the 2009 shock at profligate expenses claims to whether MPs are actually paid enough

‘Impropriety’. It curls around the tongue leaving an old-fashioned aftertaste, as if what occurred had happened by accident rather than design. A faux pas that would only be referred to in passing, as if a mere mention could bring further embarrassment so let’s spare the blushes.

However, what last week’s TV exposé revealed was not only elected public servants acting improperly, but more than likely within the rules, which makes the dilemma of how to react all the more painful.

What it showed was a grubby vulgarity that, extraordinarily, had failed to be flushed out of Westminster by the expenses scandal and a deep-held, mistaken sense of entitlement among our MPs, long after that 2009 furore had seemingly died down.

Then our democracy was rocked to its core. And yet here we are again, with no lessons learned, apparently, and everyone more sullied by the moment.

Two veteran politicians. Big beasts who should know better.

Yet the barometer of whether the kind of money-grasping practices revealed by the Straw and Rifkind sting is more widespread, was evident in the mealy-mouthed excuses and debate that followed.

Something is still rotten at Westminster. And the debate has now switched from the 2009 shock at profligate expenses claims to whether MPs are actually paid enough. But they have a choice. 

They’re not forced into elected office. They stand, make their argument and get voted in. 

And the argument about whether they forgo lucrative professions in favour of a life of honourable service and therefore should be compensated through second jobs and paid directorships is a by the by.

If you applied that rule, particularly to down the road at Holyrood, the wages bill would be a damn sight lighter than it is now. Just look at from where they come.

Regulatory procedures are meaningless in the context of what’s just occurred. Of course, they will cry, ‘we did nothing wrong’. 

"They have a choice. They’re not forced into elected office. They stand, make their argument and get voted in ”

And procedurally, that may prove correct but their crime was they took us for fools. Again. And that is unforgivable. 

Rifkind and Straw are just at one end of a spectrum that sees elected public servants engaged in marketable self-interest resulting from the influence that is inherent within their elected position.

We must now seize the moment to overhaul the relationship between politicians and external influences and define what we, the electorate, see as improper.

Banning paid second jobs and directorships is one thing but at least there is an obvious clarity. In too many of these relationships, no actual cash exchanges hands.

Labour’s Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, describes as ‘inappropriate’ and something she ‘would not do’ in relation to her party’s use of help worth thousands of pounds provided to their frontbench spokespeople from accountancy giant PwC for free.

As someone who runs a business, that’s a service I would love to tap into but obviously, I can’t. I pay. So why don’t they?

For far too many politicians, a sense of public duty morphs into one of entitlement. Self-importance takes precedence and often the link between them, the public who elect them and their parliamentary role, starts to unravel.

This is not about whether rules have been broken or not but about what is morally right and crucially, what is seen to be right. 

When I interviewed the Rt Hon [oh, yes] Malcolm Rifkind exactly two years ago, he hadn’t yet seen the Bond movie, Skyfall, but he knew the plot because he was basically in it.

Or at least the character of James Mallory, played by the actor Ralph Fiennes, as chairman of the intelligence and securities committee in the blockbuster, was playing the part that Rifkind held, until last week, for real. 

Given that Mallory gets shot in the shoulder and ultimately turns out to be a good guy and the next ‘M’, greatly amused the Scottish MP for Kensington. But I suspect he’s not laughing now.

Rifkind has become an unlikely bad guy and has only himself and his pecuniary self-interest to blame by making himself available to a fictional company that incredibly, given his background in espionage, he hadn’t even bothered to check properly.

And oh, to hear a man of Rifkind’s ambassadorial jib speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and c-l-e-a-r-l-y to his Chinese honey trap, just compounded the misery of his debasement.

Two years ago, I asked Rifkind what it felt like to be a big beast of British politics. He said he worried when people said things like ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’. He questioned whether it was a compliment or otherwise.

“After all”, he explained, “they may not make ‘em like that anymore because there is no demand.” How prophetic that now sounds.

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