Bim Afolami is the MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
People often ask me: “what is it like to be a parliamentarian”? My usual answer is the following: “it’s many things, but certainly not boring”. It has never been as true as it has been in the last week or so.
I was at the Commons for the Owen Paterson debacle, then I went to COP26 in Glasgow, and then I went back to Westminster, where the debacle was still running until the end of last week.
Personally, along with most of my Conservative colleagues, I knew little about the lengthy Paterson investigation until a couple of days before the vote. After reading Chris Bryant’s Standards Committee report, the details became very clear. Only then did I really understand that we were going to have a real political problem, but I’d be lying in saying that I thought it was going to be as disastrous as it was. Having looked into this matter carefully over the past few days, I am beginning to understand why this seems, and certainly is, a pivotal moment in this Parliament.
The impact of the Paterson deal was multifaceted. First, it shows all politicians in our worst light, putting public attention on outside earnings in addition to a salary that seems reasonable to most (to declare an interest, I’m a non-executive director of a company myself).
Second, it shows that we focus on ourselves, our incomes and jobs, rather than people’s priorities, such as public services and the economy.
Third, our mishandling of the issue has led even our strongest supporters to question our ability to run the country: if we can’t handle this kind of political problem, how can we handle the difficult things that really matter? ?
Although the revelations in the newspapers have involved Patterson and a few other MPs, the Prime Minister is taking most of the blame in the public speech, in a way that goes far beyond the original sin of the Paterson vote. Why?
Part of the reason is that the events of the past couple of weeks give those who don’t like the Prime Minister the opportunity to attack him, and they don’t lose it.
Another part is the feigned indignation that MPs have additional interests – something that has long been known and recognized (although some of the more striking examples were not known, and we should make sure the rules are applied correctly).
However, another part is the nagging feeling in public opinion that we should be better governed. And since the Prime Minister is at the pinnacle of the system, he will carry most of the can. There is the same annoying sense that arose during the Brexit referendum, and in the numerous attempts by the center left over the Corbyn years to replace the Labor Party with the alternative of Change UK, and others.
The real complaint the public has is that they don’t think MPs and the government are doing their job effectively enough. I dare say, I think they are right.
As I wrote on this site recently after the death of Sir David Amess, I think that the role of an MP needs to be updated and improved [insert link]. But it’s wider than that. If the Conservative party is to keep the public’s trust, we will have to make some changes and make them quickly.
The government and the prime minister need to make the following things clear.
First, that the government will act to crack down on MPs who are seen breaking the rules: paid lobbying is already banned, and it should be. Any attempt to limit hours or amounts from outside interests will be very difficult to obtain and will not please anyone.
So if we want to change the disciplinary system (and I think we should), these should be modest reforms focused only on a better appeal mechanism – and to achieve this beyond the line of public trust we will need to deploy cross-cutting parties and / or public support for such a change. Not easy.
Second, the government needs a mid-term review. A moment of re-set with the public. A clear and public-facing communication strategy, conducted in the new year, on what we have done so far and what we hope to do by the end of Parliament.
We should be honest about what may no longer be possible, due to the impact of Covid on public finances and the government band. We should explain where we discovered new approaches and new ideas after the elections and expose them openly. We need to show that we are actually governing for the benefit of the British people and not ourselves.
The public feels once again battered and exhausted by politics. We’ve had three years of Brexit dominating the headlines, dulling the will to live for most of us. Then, just when we managed to “Get Brexit Done,” Covid 19 plunged us into another storm, with our political leaders’ daily bulletins dominating the headlines for most of the year.
Many in the audience weren’t thrilled with the performance of the political class in action during both Brexit and Covid, but I believe an important part of Boris Johnson’s appeal across the country in December 2019 was that it wasn’t. a typical politician of the political class.
He comes from outside the village of Westminster and was a fantastic journalist, with solid background in a fairly independent and ideologically flexible period as Mayor of London. These are attractive qualities. Many voted him as Prime Minister because he was and is different from the rest of the political class and the “old” Conservative Party. We have to remember that.
The danger of this political moment is that the Conservative government may be close to losing something very precious: the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know how long this will be, but I don’t think our decline in polling support in the mid-1930s will be temporary, nor is it just this sleze problem.
There are many structural factors at play. Memories of the vaccine rebound have long since faded. Taxes have risen and are expected to rise again. Read we forget, an election at the end of 2023/4 would be 13 to 14 years since the Conservatives took office. Due to Covid and other factors, we are likely to enter those elections with higher public debt than in 2019, NHS arrears still high and household incomes still stretched.
“Time for a change” will be a powerful rallying cry, despite the futility of Keir Starmer. It will not be an easy election to win outright. If we add to these factors the public feeling that we are not in politics for the right reasons, or that we are not focused on the practical improvement of people’s lives, we will be hammered in the next election and deservedly.
We need to show that we are worthy of the trust placed in us in 2019 and show that we are focused on delivering to the public. If we don’t, we will follow the path of previous long-standing administrations – 1964 (13 years), 2010 (13 years), 1997 (18 years) – a gradual and then sudden decline towards defeat.