The language was crude and the timing unfortunate but the message was spot on. That, I think, is a fair assessment of Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley’s call for politicians to receive a larger salary. Requesting a pay rise for MPs – the nation’s pantomime villains – is never going to make you popular with the public, but the Father of the House, first elected in 1975, has been around far too long to worry about such things. What matters is being right.
The headlines have inevitably been colourful – “We NEED a pay rise,” screeched The Express – but it is worth reflecting on Sir Peter’s comments in full.
“I take the view that being an MP is the greatest honour you could have, but a general practitioner in politics ought to be paid roughly the same as a general practitioner in medicine,” he told the New Statesman. “Doctors are paid far too little nowadays. But if they would get roughly £100,000 a year, the equivalent for an MP to get the same standard of living would be £110-115,000 a year – it’s never the right time, but if your MP isn’t worth the money, it’s better to change the MP than to change the money.”
Sir Peter went on to say that the situation is “desperately difficult” for some of his colleagues in the House of Commons. “I don’t know how they manage,” he said. “It’s really grim.”
The basic annual salary for an MP is £81,932. It is, by anyone’s standards, a serious amount of money. To describe it as “really grim” – the median salary in the UK is just over £31,000 – is tactless, particularly at a time when the government is cutting universal credit and when millions of people are still feeling the financial impact of Brexit and Covid. I am sure, given the chance, Sir Peter would want to rephrase his remarks.
But if we want the very best people pursuing a career in politics, we’re going to have to pay them handsomely. Now, clearly it is a privilege to serve as an MP – there is, if you like, a non-financial reward to the job – and no one is suggesting that the salary should match that earned by, say, top lawyers and bankers.
But we must recognise that, across every industry, there is a competition to attract the brightest minds. If politics isn’t competing – seriously competing – it is reasonable to assume that people will look elsewhere. You may not like it – the system may indeed be broken – but, as things stand, there are many, many companies prepared to offer significantly more than £81,932 a year to get the people they want.
The alternative to Sir Peter’s proposals would be to stand still or even to reduce the salary of MPs, something which would no doubt be hugely popular with the public. It is self-defeating, though. The quality of MPs would simply diminish – along with the salary.
I’m afraid we can’t have it all ways. We can’t complain about the standard of our MPs and then reduce their salaries. If we believe that the House of Commons is filled with below par minds, the way to change that is to try and attract better candidates. How? Well, more money might help.
There is one other point worth making. When we think of politicians, we tend to think of the big beasts. The prime minister; the home secretary; the leader of the opposition. In actual fact, though, the vast majority of the House of Commons is made up of MPs you won’t have heard of; working hard on behalf of their constituents, running weekly surgeries, canvassing, doing their best to deal with the everyday problems of the community they represent. Sir Peter’s phrase, “a general practitioner in politics”, is rather apt. A pay rise makes a lot of sense. We would all benefit from it.