Sitting on a shelf in my home is a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor, who has just died at the age of 91, and my father. I have no idea how they met – he did not move in such circles. It was probably at a black tie do for the fashion industry, where he worked.
On a similarly personal note, he and I once did similar jobs, though not at the same time. He for a time wrote a daily analytical column on business, finance and investment for the Financial Times. I wrote something similar elsewhere.
I think we can reasonably say that his subsequent career somewhat outstripped mine. He was one of the most successful Chancellors of the post-war years, a politician who came to define his era. He was not without his critics, most recently due to his being an influential climate change denier.
His death got me thinking again about something I had been pondering for a while.
Old Tory guard were people of principle
Lawson, Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine, Lord Young of Graffham, who also died recently, Thatcher herself – whatever you made of their politics, they were people of principle who believed in what they were doing and went into politics to make the world a better place, by their lights.
Look at the recent and current Conservative front runners. Dominic Raab, the bully. Priti Patel, the bully. Suella Braverman, willing to use the most racist language if it keeps her in her seat. Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss, who almost crashed the economy. The ridiculous Jacob Rees-Mogg. Thérèse Coffey, staunch friend of the polluting water companies. Matt Hancock, thrown out for making money on a tawdry reality TV show. Rishi Sunak and his tax affairs, and his wife’s grubby Russian dividends.
And squatting over it all, like a malevolent toad, Boris Johnson, of whom enough has been said.
This is not to make a party political point. But it is quite impossible to imagine any of the above earlier generation of Tory ministers offering to prostitute themselves, as Matt Hancock did. And Kwasi Kwarteng, one of Lawson’s successors, did. For £10,000 a day.
It simply could never have happened then. Their response to any sordid approach to hire themselves out would have been interesting and fun to watch – Thatcher’s in particular. She would have been incandescent.
One has to accept that most of those old school Tory grandees were rich or well off. But the current clutch are not exactly broke, are they?
From Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. From Willie Whitelaw as Home Secretary to Suella Braverman. From Lawson to Kwasi Kwarteng. It is a very long, very steep fall.
What can be done? I have long argued that MPs are seriously underpaid. A salary of £84,000 a year might sound like unimaginable riches to someone struggling to make ends meet on the average UK median salary of about £31,000. But if you are living in London and holding down a difficult professional job, as a senior lawyer or accountant, say, it is rather less than you would expect.
Double pay and ban second jobs
So MP’s fiddle their expenses, and many Tories take lucrative second jobs. To attract serious candidates as MPs with the appropriate qualifications, and to ensure they are dedicated to their work, I would double those salaries a ban those second jobs. (The latter Keir Starmer has already pledged to do if he wins the next election.)
We also need to do something else about the selection of candidates by both parties. The trend has been towards members, the party faithful, having more say. Ed Miliband was widely criticised for accelerating this. The consequence was the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
(Without the Miliband changes, Corbyn could have remained in his juvenile Marxist student politics playpen and the world today might have looked a rather better place. Maybe no Cameron gamble of a Brexit vote in 2016. Have a look at this.)
So the party needs to have more control over candidates and the gormless faithful, happy to back anything with a red or blue rosette, much less. The faithful are not always the most representative of the voters generally.
A technocratic approach to selecting our representatives in the House of Commons, and an attempt to ensure that they act with their constituents’ and our best interests at heart rather than their own financial gain, might do something to bridge that gap between where our government is now and where it once was. For whatever party. Let’s call it the Lawson deficit.