IT is hard to think of two men who embody that rather nebulous label “The Establishment” more than Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw.
The two have held some of the highest offices in the land, including both being distinguished foreign secretaries. Rifkind has been a feature in frontline politics since Margaret Thatcher first made him a minister in 1979 – coincidentally, the year Straw was first elected.
Now in the twilight of their political careers, they are called early by the Speaker if they wish to intervene in parliament, their statements are listened to with silence and respect and they exude gravitas.
But that may all be coming to an end after the revelations this week about the two apparently touting their political services for money. The Daily Telegraph/ Channel 4 sting will certainly damage the reputations of the two, who have played a significant role in the national political fabric for 36 years. In fact, in the current “anti-politics” climate it could have a dramatic effect.
While both men were “establishment” until this week, their personal integrity had never really been in doubt. Others who have been caught in similar stings – including former Labour defence secretary Geoff Hoon or Labour transport secretary Stephen Byers – never quite commanded the same respect.
So, even if they are cleared of wrongdoing, figures such as Rifkind and Straw being tainted will only fuel the idea that MPs are at it and in it for themselves.
It is precisely this view, combined with the idea that the major Westminster parties – particularly Labour and the Conservatives – are some sort of cartel that is turning voters to parties such as the SNP, Greens and Ukip (even though, in the case of Ukip, the party seems to be lurching from one PR disaster to another).
But the revelations also came on the day when Labour leader Ed Miliband suggested a cap on MPs’ wages. The comments recorded from Rifkind really throw open the debate on MPs’ pay. The fact they are touting for business suggests MPs are not paid enough for their work. On the other hand, Rifkind was boasting about how much free time he had, which suggests maybe they are paid too much – £69,610 a year plus expenses for what can be a part-time job as a backbencher.
The simple solution may be to ban all second jobs, directorships and so forth but to pay MPs more. However, opponents of reform say this would limit the number of MPs who come in, and reduce the quality.
One thing is clear though from the Rifkind/Straw business: after the 2009 expenses scandal, Westminster has still not got its house in order and the public mood is unforgiving.
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