I’m still not sure what to make of David Cameron’s speech on cutting the cost of politics yesterday.
Obviously there’s a lot in there with which I agree. I am a Conservative member and activist, after all. But I often find myself in a minority of one when it comes to subjects like this (a position with which I’m perfectly comfortable) and I’m just not a fan of hair-shirts.
I’ll reiterate, there’s a lot in the speech with which I agree. I’ve never really understood the Standards Board when, as Cameron states, it’s usually seen as the job of the electorate to hold politicians to account (I have to declare an interest that I’m doing a fringe meeting at their conference later this year). I can’t argue with his points on the Electoral Commission or Regional Assemblies. On the number of MPs, well, I’m fairly agnostic.
It really is just the hair-shirt that causes me concern.
Of course, this isn’t actually a hair-shirt for the Conservatives. It’s largely a choice to wear a slightly less nice shirt than their predecessors – most incoming Conservative ministers will never have drawn a ministerial salary before and, for those that have, it was so long ago they will not notice the 5% cut after 13 years of inflation.
They may notice the removal of subsidy on food in the Palace of Westminster. But then so will the many many more secretaries, assistants and researchers (some working for free) for whom the subsidised food is, in reality, a little compensation for salaries that are frequently below market rates.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending ministerial salary levels, nor am I trying to make any judgment on their ideal level; I honestly don’t know the proper salary level for a minister. But what I do know is that the 5% cut is a gesture. And to be fair Cameron himself admits the saving is “trifling” and it is more about the message.
My concern, as with any gesture politics, is that the gesture can detract from the deed. The gesture got headlines today. And will doubtless get a few more headlines when the first Conservative ministers start drawing their reduced ministerial salary. And there’s absolutely no doubt that proposing cuts to politicians will be publicly popular.
But gestures are easy, and Cameron needs to make sure they don’t detract either himself, his future ministers or the public from the incredibly difficult times ahead.