The wrong man? Boris Johnson

Why are our politicians so bad?

One Westminster insider has some answers
September 15, 2018

The British public does not like its politicians. Just 21 per cent of us say we would trust an MP to tell the truth, meaning we think less of them than we do bankers.

How have we ended up with a political class despised by many of those it supposedly serves? This is the question Isabel Hardman sets out to answer in her excellent new book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians.

As those who read her in the Spectator or listen to Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster will know, Hardman is a consummate insider with high-level access—here she draws from her interviews with David Cameron, for example. And so it comes as no surprise that she takes a rather more charitable view towards MPs than the book’s title might suggest. Having spent years as a lobby journalist, she has a degree of sympathy with our political masters.

Hardman’s real criticism is reserved for the system MPs inhabit. The first, smaller, problem is one of constitutional structure, and she proposes sensible changes to select committees among other things.

The larger problem is the culture. Hardman describes well the toxic climate that has been allowed to develop in parliament, which encourages otherwise good people to behave disreputably. The result has been scandals like the 2009 expenses farrago, which overnight destroyed a lot of the public’s trust. Another consequence is straightforward bad legislation. Hardman argues that we must make it simpler—and cheaper: it costs candidates on average £35,000 to stand for parliament—for ordinary people to enter politics, which would improve its social diversity.

Hardman suggests practical solutions like bursaries for Westminster candidates. This is not the full-throated populist overhaul some will want, but it is actually the better for that. Rather than writing an ill-thought through demolition job, Hardman has carefully explained how to breathe new life into the existing system.

Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman (Atlantic, £18.99)