George Osborne has been denounced for “greed”, “moonlighting” and “neglecting his constituents” after accepting an appointment as editor of the Evening Standard. Whilst I do not deny there may be some conflicts of interest which may well have to be unreeled, my main response, after years of intense public service in the front line, is good luck to him.
The reality is that in all George’s Osborne’s positions he is being employed as a figure head rather than the man that gets his hands dirty. At the Evening Standard I suspect the Deputy Editor, who is a trained journalist, will be doing most of the leg and legal work! At Blackrock, his main job will be to advise on economic matters and to represent the company in a social capacity. As for abandoning his constituents, I shouldn’t think the hours he puts in will be any less than those of when he was Chancellor which, I might add, was also a second job and quite a considerable one at that!
George has formidable talent and phenomenal energy. Even when he was Chancellor he was moonlighting, attending the daily Downing Street meetings morning and evening and running two election campaigns. Then that is the sort of person he is. Fingers in lots of pies. He just can’t help himself. He was never going to flounce off into the wilderness when Theresa May sacked him. And he might just have taken the Standard job as a fight back for the metropolitan electorate with whom he is identified and possibly even for the ‘remoaners’; the 48% whose voice have been drowned out by the Brexit brigade. George Osborne could well become the Standard bearer for the entrepreneurs, the disaffected young, the internationalists with his new platform of power, a vacuum that was looking to be filled. Who knows, only time will tell, but I suspect it is a clever and counter intuitive move by the paper’s proprietor Evgeny Lebedev.
The scrutiny of politicians working arrangements is now so intense – boosted by a voracious social media – that I fear it will deter good people going into politics. Sometimes we just can’t win! I remember the days when George Osborne (who had never had a job outside politics) was accused of being a member of the political class, a ‘professional politician’ who had no understanding of the real world because he only operated in the Westminster bubble. Ironically now he is a mere backbencher he is being criticized for going out to work!
The problem lies in a misunderstanding that being an MP is a job. It isn’t really, it is more a representative role. A back bencher’s task is to represent his or her constituents, make laws and hold the Government to account. It is not an executive function. With about 550 others doing the same thing, it should not require full-time labour. Not everyone can be on a committee for example. Representing constituents involves case work, and this is often shared with a dedicated team of back room staff who are invaluable in sifting through the ‘system’ and its diverse bureaucratic obstinacies. Although the MP bears overall responsibility in what he signs off.
We are also expected to be accessible – not just by holding surgeries but also across an array of events in our constituencies. Then there is the task of upholding the broader constituency interests – for instance working with business and local government in seeking to ensure the local economy thrives. Surely each MP’s effectiveness should be measured by their output and their results not by the false measure of how many hours are put in. Still less should there be envy over how much money they earn. Besides, if the electorate find their MP lazy or underachieving or completely distracted elsewhere they have the ability to kick him or her out.
Being a Minister of course is entirely different, that is a job, a job in which you run, or help run, a Government department, therefore any other work would be a conflict of interest, which is why it is disallowed.
If an MP uses his time efficiently he has plenty of room for other interests. I, for example, have some paid outside interests but I’m also Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) and Deputy Chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC); both these posts keep my interest in foreign affairs active and enable me to ask informed questions to the executive on foreign matters.
What about another Devon MP, Geoffrey Cox, the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon? He earned over half a million last year as a barrister. Have his constituents suffered as a result? His surgeries in Torrington and Tavistock are fairly regular. Even though more case work comes via email these days. Geoffrey is still lobbying for the Appledore Shipyard and like all of us is active on hospital closures and funding for Devon schools. Only last week he arranged a meeting with the Health Secretary about the loss of beds at Holsworthy Hospital.
So are the parliamentary Quangocrats who think they are echoing the views of the public really going to stop MPs coming to parliament who are practicing doctors? or stop barristers like Geoffrey who bring an eagle legal eye to legislation? I hope not. The Commons is a much richer place for the experience it holds. If they do, I can assure you, many of the brightest and best will leave only to be replaced by politically obsessive, self promoting campaigners that see politics as a career not a vocation.
And as Michael Gove pointed out if we believe in a free press, should proprietors not have a right to appoint who they see fit as editor, without the executive or anyone interfering in that decision? Should unelected and undemocratic bodies in Parliament make decisions - waving the banner of morality and standards - about MPs? Are they really superior to the decisions made by the the electorate who have the democratic right to kick out an underperforming MP? I don’t think so. Parliament is, and should remain sovereign.
In 1909 there was a warning from Sir William Bull, the Conservative MP for Hammersmith, against a proposal to pay MPs. Sir William predicted the next thing would be that local councillors would be paid and there was a danger of “a very distinct class of professional politicians.” Well, both have happened. A local councillor was always meant to be a pillar of the local community who devoted his or her spare time to public service; now we have some councillors who do nothing else.
In 1995 Lord Nolan’s Committee on Standards in Public Life declared:
“A Parliament composed entirely of full-time professional politicians would not serve the best interests of democracy. The House needs if possible to contain people with a wide range of current experience which can contribute to its expertise. The onward march of the professional politician may be an irresistible feature of modern life, but we believe that nothing should be done by way of institutional arrangements which would hasten it.”
In my opinion that conclusion remains valid.
I fear much of the uproar surrounding Mr Osborne’s new jobs tells us more about salary envy than anything else, and that is not a good basis for an argument.
So, nice work if you can get it George!