Political notes

Some worry that parliamentary scandals will push talented people away from politics. But might the opposite be true?
July 3, 2009

If the 2005-10 parliament is consigned to ignominy in the history books, will the next be better? Whatever the final result of the next election, the Commons is set for a big clearout. Some MPs have resigned over expenses. But a big swing to the Tories could see as many as half the current crop of 646 replaced—the biggest turnover in modern history. A great deal rides on the quality of those newcomers.

Complaints about the health of parliament are, of course, nothing new. "It has been a permanent condition of its history," wrote Andrew Marr in Ruling Britannia, to be "regarded by intelligent observers as being in a state of grave decline." Parliament was a mere "rump" in 1648. After the election of 1868—the first after a significant expansion of the franchise in 1867—the writer John Morley dubbed the Commons "the chamber of mediocrity."

But even by historical standards the volume of vitriol now tipped daily onto MPs is high. They are, according to popular prejudice, largely self-serving, lazy cheats. In reality, of course, they are largely public-spirited and hard-working. But if our constitution contained a populist mechanism for the early dissolution of parliament, there would have been a general election by now.

The real issue is not just MPs' integrity, but their ability. Worries that political "professionalisation" thins talent at the top seem questionable. Government careerists—like the Milibands or the departed James Purnell—are often the most able. Labour's elite has long disdained the trade union-backed placemen on its backbenches, while modernising Tories are contemptuous of their own backwoodsmen, who combine country house lifestyles with doubtful views on immigration and sexuality. The Cameroons call them "bed-blockers." Their only regret is the expenses scandal didn't finish off a few more.

The absence of able MPs matters most for the governing party. Given a likely Conservative victory, it is disturbing that the shadow ministerial benches have only a thin topsoil of talent, one reason why David Cameron stood by Michael Gove and Oliver Letwin during the expenses row. Labour modernisers, meanwhile, have looked on with envy as Cameron introduced an A-list of top candidates, allowing more quality control than their locally selected Labour opponents. Those Tories already selected for seats are, on the whole, less liberal than Cameron would like. But there are some prospective stars too: Nicholas Boles, a brilliant political strategist; Shaun Bailey, a community organiser and straight-talker; Margot James, a successful businesswoman who is already vice-chair of the party. These three will quickly find themselves junior ministers, if the Tories win.

At this stage it is hard to judge whether there will be an improvement or decline in the quality of legislators. It would be odd if the spotlight recently thrown on MPs didn't put some able people off a life led in parliament's technicolour transparency. And even if the scandals don't put good people off, the conventions of Westminster seem designed to wear MPs down, in a kind of Darwinian struggle in which only the most stubborn survive.

Oona King, one of many women to bemoan her life as an MP, wrote in her diary about the night of 19th November 2001, when she spoke on detention without trial. "Sat in the chamber for nine hours just to get my five minutes' worth of outrage on the record," she wrote. "Left Parliament some time after midnight." Hopes that ending such late-night sitting might encourage more capable women into Westminster have proven forlorn.

Yet this backdrop of heavy scrutiny and daily tedium hasn't stopped Tory seats, in particular, becoming a magnet for the ambitious. The Financial Times reported this month that as many as 1,000 businesspeople had applied to be put on the Conservative candidates list, which Cameron reopened in the aftermath of the expenses scandal—including former Dragons' Den panellist Rachel Elnaugh. These newcomers will be competing with a raft of senior Conservative aides, who have also thrown their hats into the reopened ring, having until recently thought that they might have to wait at least a few more years.

It's an oddity, though, that while the expenses spat has turned the public off politics, others seem newly turned on to the idea. Perhaps the hopefuls just think that they can do better that the current lot. Tories hope the last minute rush will mean better candidates, and there is even a chance that public hostility will act as a crude quality control mechanism. As one Tory insider told me: "Anybody willing to knock on doors in this climate has got to be highly motivated and pretty tough: I think we'll see much stronger MPs as a result."

Parliament is at an important moment. Reform is inevitable, with a better expenses system, more power for committees and more control over the legislative timetable. But what of those who work there? It is said that we get the MPs we deserve. There is now a feeling that we deserve better.