by Olivia Hanks
The news that George Osborne is the new editor of the London Evening Standard was met with widespread disbelief in Westminster. Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the former chancellor was “taking multitasking to an extreme level – what a joke”.
There are so many angles from which to object to this appointment that it’s hard to know where to start. Firstly, the brazen conflict of interest has already led to speculation about whether Osborne will be forced to step down as an MP. A prominent MP becoming editor of a major newspaper is a serious threat to UK democracy (we seem to be averaging about one a day now), and is sure to diminish our reputation around the world.
A prominent MP becoming editor of a major newspaper is a serious threat to UK democracy (we seem to be averaging about one a day now), and is sure to diminish our reputation around the world.
Secondly, the world of journalism has unsurprisingly responded with scorn to the appointment of a man whose journalistic career has so far consisted of a failed application to the Times graduate scheme and the odd bit of freelance work back in the 1990s. Journalism is already battling to maintain professionalism in a climate of demand for constantly updated ‘content’ and online audiences who don’t expect to pay for what they read; the sector doesn’t need its highest-paid positions taken over by hobbyists as well.
But I want to leave those issues aside to focus on what Osborne’s decision says about the status of Parliament. He is not the first to decide recently that he’s lost interest in being an MP and can earn more elsewhere: Labour members Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt both recently resigned when a better offer came along. The difference with Osborne, of course, is that he appears to have no intention of resigning, despite the fact he will now be working four days a week at the Standard as well as one day in his £650,000-a-year role with BlackRock. And working for a think tank. And pocketing hundreds of thousands of pounds for giving speeches, presumably about how to destroy the prosperity of a major developed nation.
And really, why bother with Parliament these days? Despite suggestions that Hunt is underqualified for his new role as director of the V&A, a museum full of tourists and ancient relics is basically where he has spent the last seven years. After all, Parliament has essentially declared during the Article 50 shambles that it would prefer itself not to exist, or at least not to have a “meaningful vote” on major decisions. In those circumstances, why wouldn’t you skip a vote on Brexit to make a speech about it instead? If Parliament is going to be responsible for deciding all our laws once we’ve left the EU, it’s going to have to up its game. And if it’s not going to be making the laws – if, as many fear, the government makes widespread use of delegated powers to bypass Parliament altogether – well, then we’re not living in a democracy any more.
Parliament has essentially declared during the Article 50 shambles that it would prefer itself not to exist, or at least not to have a “meaningful vote” on major decisions.
The Evening Standard stated that Osborne’s new job won’t interfere with his duties as an MP, since it will give him “the time to vote and contribute in parliament in the afternoon after the paper has gone to print”. The idea that being a member of Parliament is merely about turning up to vote is such an insulting reduction of the role, it’s no wonder people think politicians are lazy and out of touch. Many MPs work tirelessly both in Westminster and in their constituency. They are, after all, doing essentially two jobs, serving their constituents and helping to make the UK’s laws – as shown by the acknowledged convention that although bills are brought to the House of Commons on Fridays, hardly anyone turns up for them because Friday is MPs’ ‘constituency day’.
Given this enormous pressure on MPs’ time, it’s fair to conclude that any member doing a significant additional job is not performing their role properly. But when it comes to the status of an MP’s position, the public seems to have the worst of all worlds. On the one hand, we have people like Reed and Hunt, who see the role as just another career opportunity, to be ditched when a better one presents itself – never mind the people you were elected to serve, or the cost to them of the by-election forced by your personal ambitions. On the other, we have the bizarre situation where there is no limit on the amount of time MPs can spend on other paid work (nor on how much they can earn from it), demonstrating that they are certainly not bound by the same restrictions as those in employment. Some earn money from occasional speeches or newspaper columns, but others work as lawyers, directors and consultants (and, in one case, a dentist).
The public is clearly in favour of a ban on second jobs for MPs. Labour proposed a ban on consultancy jobs and directorships in 2015, but this was rejected by the Conservatives – who may have been struggling to follow the debate while simultaneously defending court cases, extracting teeth and appearing on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
To remind job-hunting MPs that they are public servants, whose office is of the highest seriousness, I would also suggest that any who resign to take up another job should pay the cost of the by-election themselves, about £240,000: ten times the average UK salary, or about three speeches for the least popular man on Fleet Street.
Featured image, staff at Evening Standard react to news of Osborne’s position as Editor, via @joy_lo_dico