Today the Guardian is running with a story about Grant Shapps having had a second job as a “multimillion-dollar web marketer” overlapping with his time as a Member of Parliament. It’s obvious why the newspaper is running this hard given we’re weeks away from a general election, but I want to talk seriously about this incident, its implications and the type of political system we’d ideally like to have.
First of all, there is no rule saying that MPs cannot have a second job while serving in the House of Commons, and nor do I think there should be. So Shapps having a second job while being an MP is not in itself, according to the rules on the matter, a breach of anything. There is some confusion over whether the job counts as a second job or simply as an outside business interest, and some confusion over whether or not Shapps had to or didn’t have to declare it and when and how he did so. But that’s not what the real interest in the story is, the technicalities of the matter. It’s about the idea that MPs shouldn’t have second jobs or outside interests in the first place.
In a democracy, this should be a simple matter: the people of Welwyn Hatfield, Shapps’ constituency, should be left to decide whether Shapps running around calling himself a marketing guru named Michael Green is a sackable offence by either voting to retain him as an MP or voting for someone else to be their representative in Westminster. If you don’t think this is a stern enough test, argue for a different voting system that holds MPs to a greater standard of culpability for their actions. Otherwise, you have little in the way of a coherent intellectual argument on the matter.
I suppose you could alternatively say that it should be set in the rules that MPs cannot not be allowed to have second jobs or any outside business interests whatsoever. Again, I don’t agree with that idea, but nevertheless you could make that case. The same people who argue for this to happen tend to think MPs are paid too much already and we should actually cut their pay. Or even better have them not paid anything at all.
Those who tend to make a case for this stuff are ironically the very same people who would be least happy with the changes this would make to parliament. Because essentially the House of Commons would become the preserve of very wealthy individuals who had no interest in outside business activities because they would see their time in office as a sort of way to combine retirement with doing something for the public good. So if you want all MPs to become rich pensioners, by all means keeping shouting for MP’s wage to be withdrawn altogether.
In the meantime, what should happen to Grant Shapps? I say let the people of Welwyn Hatfield be the jury.