PMQs has never been a forum for cross-party agreement; it is a battleground for sound-bites and point-scoring. If reforming the rules for MPs holding second jobs was a priority, an agreement would be reached behind the scenes and changes would be quietly introduced. However, this has been a high-profile scandal and presented an opportunity for Labour to “win” on this issue.
By openly challenging the Prime Minister to introduce these reforms, Ed Miliband was making it impossible for Cameron to accede to Labour’s offer without being seen to lose face. No Prime Minister is going to do that so close to an election, and Labour knew that.
This was a difficult situation for a Prime Minister. A scandal has occurred and the Opposition has proposed a popular and seemingly straight-forward solution to prevent the same happening again. If the government agrees, they are effectively admitting that they had not taken sufficient action in the first place and that the Opposition knows best how to resolve the issue. If they don’t, people will want to know why.
David Cameron defended the current rules and held up the Lobbying and Recall of MP Acts to show the Conservatives are serious on this issue. However, it’s been pointed out that the former doesn’t cover MPs and the latter is ineffective when both MPs are standing down anyway.
The Prime Minister’s second argument was that the Conservatives wouldn’t support legislation that enabled a person to be a paid trade union official, but not “help run the family shop”. In an unexpected move, Miliband immediately offered to amend his party’s position to appease the Tories. For the first time in recent PMQs, the momentum of the chamber swung behind the Labour leader.
Next, Cameron argued that by introducing a cap on earnings, the rules would limit the amount of experience an MP could bring to the House; using the Shadow Education secretary’s part-time university lecturing as a slightly unorthodox example. However, it could be said that watching a former Defence and Foreign Secretary describe himself as “unemployed” with “lots of time for walks” didn’t give the impression of a man looking to gain further experience to improve his abilities as an MP.
Ed Miliband painted this issue as a simple choice for Conservatives: do they serve their constituents or wider interests. Unfortunately, when presented with a seemingly simple choice, the Conservatives made the classic error of giving too many excuses; several excuses are always less convincing than one.
However, the Conservatives’ approach is one grounded in an understanding of the news cycle. They understand that this is a short-term headline issue that is damaging the reputation of the entire political class, rather than just their party. As a result, they are resisting the temptation to rush out long-term changes to the system as they are unwilling to be seen to be submitting to Labour’s will. The price is handing Labour a day of headlines, whilst hoping the wider reputational damage is evenly spread between the parties.
Labour were presented with an opportunity to paint themselves as the party against closed interests and Miliband played his hand well. Since these events happened under Cameron’s watch, he had to defend his government’s stance and resist the righteousness of Labour. In the end, it looked like the Conservatives were being evasive and fighting progressive reform. The Opposition carried the day, but the opportunity for real reform following this latest scandal may have now passed as a result.