Dennis Healey brought the phrase “silly billy” to public notice with some help from Mike Yarwood. I can think of no better way of describing the performance of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind when interviewed for a consultancy with a fictitious Chinese company as a media scam. It baffles me how serious and senior politicians like these two can fall for a scam like this and make such complete and sad fools of themselves.
There we saw Jack Straw in his parliamentary office with the green screen behind him showing Commons business openly touting for business as a consultant once he stood down from his Blackburn seat in the May General Election. Quoting £5,000 as his basic fee for a day’s work or less, he clearly speculated on the value of his name and his ability to open doors to ambassadors and world leaders. Did he have no idea the Chinese lady who was masquerading as the niece of a Chinese company chairman was pointing a concealed camera at him? Did this very senior politician have no sense that he was being sent up?
However, I am afraid Malcolm Rifkind proved to be the bigger silly billy. The Member of Parliament for the prime seat of Kensington & Chelsea had every intention of standing in the May General Election and would undoubtedly have won it hands down. In touting for consultancy business with a fictitious Chinese company he offered access and influence that may or may not have offended the Commons rules but it clearly caused great offence to the wider public although probably not many of his Kensington & Chelsea constituents. He proved his arrogant, sheer stupidity and detachment from the real world after the scam by claiming he was entitled to a higher income than a MP because of his professional background and skills. He topped off the demolition of his political career and reputation by boasting how much free time he enjoyed.
This debacle is symptomatic of a bigger problem, however. Straw and Rifkind got caught openly touting their marketability as senior politicians who have held some of the great offices of state. I could not help speculating on the tariff for a senior politician. How much does an ex-prime minister command? How much an ex-foreign secretary? How much an ex-chancellor of the exchequer? How far round the cabinet table does this tariff marketability extend? Presumably an ex-defence secretary would have considerable value in the arms market? What about an ex-home secretary or an ex-education secretary or an ex-chief whip?
Clearly the answer is a very variable tariff. Top of the list must be Blair who has ended up a multi millionaire after his ten years as PM. He has scoffed at the suggestion of £100m net worth but it is calculated he and Cherry have five homes worth £25m and he can clearly command huge speaking and writing fees let alone consultancies of the kind Straw and Rifkind have brought to light. John Major has been most discreet but, for a PM who boasted of his humble beginnings, he appears to have travelled a long way. Gordon Brown has registered mouth-watering earnings in the Commons register after a short and notably unsuccessful period as Prime Minister.
Does it matter? Our MPs are not paid generously. At £67k, they rank with a middling school headmaster’s pay and receive a lot less than most GPs. However, if you add in the generous allowances they receive for office costs, housing and an eye-wateringly generous pension scheme, life looks brighter. Add in the ability of those with outside interests – barristers, entrepreneurs, authors – to earn substantial sums while serving as MPs and the picture is cloudier. This brings the issue to the dichotomy that is the House of Commons. Members of Parliament will come from a whole variety of backgrounds. There will be barristers, merchant bankers, successful business people and many other wealthy individuals who have decided to enter politics. There will be others from humbler backgrounds – teachers, nurses and some who have never had a proper job and have stumbled into politics after working in political and media consultancies after leaving education. Such a mix of background and earning power is bound to create tensions. Promotion to ministerial rank brings prohibition on holding outside employments so a ministerial salary may not compensate for lost income for a high flyer. It is easy for the popular media to castigate a politician who expects to earn more than the national average wage but failing to reward talent in politics is likely to prove that paying peanuts attracts plenty of monkeys.
I don’t excuse Straw or Rifkind but I don’t think we have heard the last of this issue. Perhaps we should expect national politicians to publish their tax returns after they have left public office?