There was a second part of his statement however with which I have considerably more sympathy, and that was about the unrealistic expectations that we have about MPs and more particularly ministers. It’s not the disruption caused by the mere fact of having to live in one place and work elsewhere, although that’s that way it’s come across. On that point, firstly it isn’t only a problem faced by MPs, and secondly, he knew that was the nature of the job when he went for it. No, it’s the fact that local constituents want to see their MP on the ground, whilst MPs are expected to be in Westminster, and ministers are generally expected to be available 24/7 – they cannot meet all those expectations.
Part of the expectation of constituents has been built up over the years for electoral reasons. “Being seen” in all the right places can help sitting MPs to keep their seats; and challengers can have an advantage in being available in a way that sitting members can’t, so it’s at least partly about watching their backs. I’m also sceptical about the 24/7 demands on ministers – being “busy” isn’t always the same as doing useful things. The attitude of the civil service parodied so well by “Yes Minister” – keeping them busy attending meetings, reading reports, and rubberstamping decisions so that they have no time to take any initiatives of their own – is probably closer to reality than it should be.
But even removing those – to some extent self-imposed – expectations, there is still a tendency to expect our MPs to be doing much more than a 9-to-5 job; and paying them more would only encourage that expectation.
Whilst a fixed 9-to-5 routine is never going to fit the nature of the job, why should the job not be defined in such a way which allows a better home-work balance of the sort that most of us expect? It’s impossible to escape the implications of having to work in two locations – one in London and one in the constituency – but there are lots of jobs where similar factors can apply: having two bases is no reason in itself for expecting a 24/7 availability.
I suspect that the hours and poor home-work balance (to say nothing of the macho culture) are a larger deterrent to able people – and particularly women – than the salary, but there seems to be an unwillingness to redefine the role to tackle that issue. And of course the fact that so many of them do other jobs “on the side” doesn’t exactly help the cause of the honest ones trying to do their best…