MPs allowances: the dangers of winning, the virtues of clumsiness


There is one thing worse than losing a political argument: winning it. Given that all policy is seen to fail sooner or later, those who oppose an idea know it is only a matter of time before they can say ‘I told you so’. But the person who presses their case and wins runs the risk of being left the isolated scapegoat. In true ‘In the Loop’ fashion Whitehall insiders have their own version of an old saying: ‘success has many parents, but failure is a bastard’. I lost many arguments in my time at Number Ten, but if ever I thought I might win I made sure I wasn’t alone. 

It is, I suspect, only a matter of time before we hear competing accounts of whose voice it was that last week piped up at Downing Street to suggest  Gordon Brown intervene again in the MP’ allowances argument. Could it have been the same person who advocated the now shelved attendance allowance scheme and then went on to suggest the Prime Minister make his case on YouTube? If so they, like another unfortunate advisor, will soon find lifelong friends calling them by their surname (I had tea last week with an ex-Treasury civil servant who giggled uncontrollably each time he found an excuse to refer to ‘Mr McBride’).

By the way, while we are on the YouTube debacle I can’t resist repeating Catherine Bennett’s brilliant description of Gordon Brown ‘giving the impression of an unusually intelligent alien who has made a careful study of human beings, without ever having had the opportunity to meet one’.

On the substantive issue I refer back to an earlier post, offering a cultural theory explanation for the ‘clumsy’ system of MPs’ allowances. I made the point that there is no neat solution to MPs’ remuneration that doesn’t create new problems of its own. Oh, if only Number Ten read my blog, how much embarrassment they could have avoided!

The irony of all the talk of new systems is that the present arrangements are, I suspect, only one small reform from being workable, and this reform is about to be implemented. As the Scottish system shows, making all expense claims immediately transparent largely takes the heat out of the issue; for two reasons. On the one hand, all but the most shameless MPs avoid making claims that will bring them into disrepute. On the other, the fact that the claims are publicly available takes away the journalists' ability to ‘expose’ the information in a sensationalist way.

One of the perils of policy making - and dangers of political hubris - is overturning a whole system when minor reforms could have the desired effect (did someone say ‘Frank Dobson and the NHS internal market?’). There is no popular way to pay MPs – as Rachel Sylvester argues cogently, this reflects a deeper malaise in political discourse -  but the present system plus transparency may well be the best we can realistically manage. Not that I'd want to be the one who tells Gordon!

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