Not born to rule

Some years ago, in the members’ tea room, when MPs were about to vote themselves a massive pay increase to which I was vocally opposed, one of the wealthier Tories remarked to me: “What you don’t realize, Chris, is that no Tory MP can survive on an MP’s salary”. He spoke with great passion and, much to my embarrassment, within the hearing of the tea ladies whose salary was about one-third of ours.

Jess Phillips had a similar experience:

I remember a Tory woman once saying to me that she had taken a huge pay cut to become an MP and that she couldn’t have done it had her husband not become a senior partner in a law firm. To which I replied that my income had more than doubled since I became an MP, that I was the family bread winner and that actually I felt pretty wealthy … She then said, “Gosh, well, we couldn’t afford the children’s schooling if I were the breadwinner.”

Despite exchanges such as these, much of the public firmly believes that all MPs are the same. And certainly their standing has rarely been lower. From the Great Expenses Scandal of 2009 to the fall of Boris Johnson, it has been downhill all the way. The rise of social media has not helped. Familiarity has only bred contempt. We live at the age of the feeding frenzy in which a single, ill- advised tweet can destroy a career.

Phillips has attempted to restore the balance. She has the great privilege of representing the constituency in which she was born and bred, and, unlike many of her younger colleagues, who learned their politics in student unions, she has experienced life at the sharp end, working with victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse: matters on which she has continued to focus since she was first elected in 2015. With more than half a million Twitter followers and a way with words, Phillips has also become one of the better-known Labor backbenchers.

In publicshe can come across as somewhat abrasive, with a quote for all occasions. But readers of her account of life in parliament will find it easy to warm to her. Her style in The Life of an MP: Everything you really need to know about politics, which appeared in hardback last year, is earthy and direct: “like all of us, I fuck up”. She is disarmingly honest: “sometimes I get drunk”. Much of her advice is sensible: “Only speak on what you know about … No need to have an instant opinion … Never trust a politician who will not admit to being wrong.”

Phillips can see the other side of an argument. Her judgments are balanced and constructive. She respects her opponents. Most MPs, she acknowledges, have honorable motives, but, she believes, there are exceptions: “10 percent don’t give a toss about the world … and have a perverse sense of how bloody exceptional they are and, quite frankly are convinced they are born to rule … There has never been a better example of this than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.”

There are lessons here for any aspiring politician, though not all her arguments hit the mark. I am entirely in favor of MPs living in their constituencies, but it doesn’t follow that you have to be born and raised there to be an effective MP: it’s where you’re going to that counts. Some of my former colleagues had impeccable local credentials, but were of little use in parliament. We also need to be wary of the idea, suggested by Phillips, that the primary role of an MP is to act as some sort of fairy godmother to his or her constituents. By all means live in the constituency, open a local office and hold regular surgeries, but the primary function of an MP is to hold the government to account.

Ali Milani is another politician who believes all MPs should come from the communities they represent, and not, as he puts it, “a conveyor belt of Boris Johnsons and David Camerons, straight out of the Eton common rooms and into public office”. Despite Milani’s birth and early years in Iran, his credentials were impeccable. Aged just twenty-three, he was selected by his local Labor Party to contest Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the constituency in which he and his family had lived since he was five. The incumbent was Boris Johnson.

Milani’s 2019 election run was always going to be a David and Goliath affair, but the author and his friends organized a formidable campaign. Prompted by the possibility of cutting the head off the serpent, volunteers flocked to his banner. In the end Johnson was duly returned with a 7,000 majority, his prominence and promise to “get Brexit done” proving too mighty. The Unlikely Candidate is more than the story of Milani’s remarkable campaign. It is a thoughtful, articulate account of what, in the author’s view, British politics should look like: in this case, leftist with a streak of populism. If he perseveres, he may well be among the next generation of political leaders.

Emma Dent Coad went one better than Milani, achieving the spectacular feat of capturing Kensington and Chelsea in 2017, on a swing of 11 per cent, becoming the constituency’s first Labor MP. But there is much more to her new book than an account of this triumph. One Kensington is based on the author’s sixteen years as a councillor at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest local authority in Britain, which, despite regularly underspending its budget and having usable reserves that peaked at £300 million in 2016, also has the distinction of being the local authority with the widest disparity between rich and poor. It was, in the memorable words of its current chief executive Barry Quirk, “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”.

If Dent Coad is to be believed (and she provides plenty of evidence), this was Tory local government at its most hard-nosed, slashing public services, privatizing everything in sight, demolishing estates and replacing them with private housing and little or no Affordable housing, while spending large sums of public money on what the author calls “fantasy projects” such as a loss-making opera company in Holland Park, which, the author estimates, will by 2023 have cost local taxpayers £51 million, and a Crossrail station that never materialized. As of 2020 there were 1,800 local children housed in bed and breakfasts, some of whom had been marooned there for years. It was the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017 – less than a week after Dent Coad became an MP – and the rampant safety failures it exposed that blew the lid off everything.

Andrea Leadsom is the lone Tory among this batch of political memoirs. A Brexiteer with a background in finance and a mother of three children, Leadsom has held half a dozen ministerial posts and is best known for having been the runner-up to Theresa May in the 2016 ballot for the Tory leadership. Her proudest achievement is to have played a leading part in persuading Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, to fund support for families with young children, although she can’t quite bring herself to acknowledge that this was, at least in part, a revival of Labor’s Sure Start programme, dismantled by George Osborne’s slash-and-burn approach to public spending.

A pleasant-sounding woman, with decent instincts, Leadsom offers few insights in Snakes and Ladders, beyond accounts of her odd run in with the former Commons Speaker John Bercow (he is alleged to have mouthed the words “stupid woman” after one such altercation) and yet more evidence of the frustrations of life in government. Of the poison introduced into the body politic by Brexit, she says: “history will be far kinder to Theresa May than her colleagues and many of the press and public were at the time. By the end she was exhausted – as we all were. Exhausted by the rage from MPs, from our constituents, from everyone, Leave and Remain, who thought they were being betrayed.” Of her time as environment secretary, she writes: “Gradually it was dawning on me that although I was working flat out in the department, nothing was ever given the green light by Downing Street … It was always ‘now’s not the right time’” . Leadsom wonders whether it was personal. I find this unlikely: it was much the same when I was a minister in that department twenty years ago.

Chris Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South between 1987 and 2010. He is the author of three volumes of diaries charting the rise and fall of New Labor

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