OPINION - Trust in our politicians is too precious for MPs to have second jobs

Former party chair Nadhim Zahawi leaves Conservative Party HQ  in Westminster (PA Wire)
Former party chair Nadhim Zahawi leaves Conservative Party HQ in Westminster (PA Wire)

Nadhim Zahawi was sacked as Conservative Party chairman over the weekend for a serious breach of the ministerial code regarding his tax affairs, after the usual denials and attempts to survive. What for? In his resignation letter he offered not a word of apology to the public, but he did criticise the media that exposed him. And off he goes.

Only a third of British people trust the government, though most of them trust their neighbours: there is some hope in that. Fewer than 20 per cent of young people believe democracy serves them and only six per cent of all people believe their needs drive government, behind the requirements of donors, corporations, the media and lobbyists.

This is a dangerous disconnect. Westminster’s new standards chief, Daniel Greenberg, warned last week that the reputation of MPs is dangerously low. Some are wearing stab vests in public places. Nothing is more important than restoring public faith.

The greatest threat to democracy is not external enemies but a lack of trust in it: destroy that, and populism walks through the open door. I am always banging on about Weimar Germany: its history is more instructive to us than its successor, Nazi Germany.

Targeting political donations would be an obvious start, as would lobbying, but I wonder if we should begin with something simpler: MPs’ second jobs. Ministers are not allowed to do outside work, but considering the demands on their time do backbenchers really have the time, particularly in the era of email, when voters expect a prompt response to their questions?

As far as I am aware, only Richard Drax, the MP for West Dorset, has held on to a family mansion in a former slave plantation in Barbados, but many MPs have second jobs. Since the 2019 general election, MPs have earned £17.1 million: of that, £15.2 million was earned by Conservatives. Being prime minister is, of course, the jackpot. Theresa May has earned £2.5 million, and Boris Johnson £1 million in just a few months. Only a grinch would expect them not to earn what they can — though the MP’s wage of £84,144 is beyond adequate — but can’t they at least wait until they leave Parliament?

The generous argument that, if MPs don’t earn what they feel they deserve, they will flee to the private sector and deprive us of their gifts, reads hollow these days. It fuels the idea that it is not the electorate that they truly serve. I am not against expertise in other areas — who is? — but can’t it be demonstrated before, and after, they take up the sacred calling? It’s a fragment of history, still living: the custom that legislating is a part-job to be fitted in between running the family estate or showing off at the Bar. Geoffrey Cox, lawyer and MP for Torridge and West Devon, is a leading barrister, as he says, preeningly. But does it really serve his constituents? If MPs don’t consider our democracy to be their most critical priority, who will?

Tar is so provocative

Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, tells the story of a Harvey Weinstein-style abuser: a monstrous artist — a conductor, in this case — who sexually exploits vulnerable protégés and, in at least one case, destroys their careers. The comparison works. A conductor is an interpreter of art — Tár’s compositions are pitiful and derivative — and Weinstein was notorious for sexual assault and butchering the films he produced: ask Giuseppe Tornatore, whose Cinema Paradiso Weinstein destroyed.

Tár is a stylish, bitter and deliberately confounding film, which allows Hollywood, which enabled Weinstein, to forget its own complicity. Why feminise Weinstein, and insinuate that women are as often abusers as men? Because there is appetite for it. Hollywood did make a film about Weinstein: She Said, which told the story of the two female New York Times reporters who broke the story. It bombed, while Tár is up for six Academy Awards.