Ah, to be a politician

It's not always easy making your living as a politician, argues Peter Botting

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There are easier ways to make a living...
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Peter Botting
On 11 July 2012 15:39

It is tough being a politician sometimes. When a wannabe MP is preparing to be grilled by a selection committee, set up in the middle of nowhere in a village hall by a local Conservative constituency association, the aspiring MP prepares and polishes the answer to many questions. These include the “Conflict of Interest” question.

This usually goes somewhere along these lines: “How would you act/react if the party wants you to vote in one way, and the constituency and the constituency party wants you to vote a different way?”

The answer usually includes a solemn and considered promised prioritisation process along the lines of: “Country first, then constituency, then party, Ladies and Gentlemen”. 

Then you get selected and you are a Parliamentary Candidate. No-one asks you silly questions like that. Real people are worried about jobs and schools and the NHS and stuff like that. Retail politics. Real politics. No party nonsense. 

Then you get elected. It is all a bit busy; lots to do. You are impressed you can find your way around the corridors in the Palace of Westminster. You get a thrill of excitement when you vote for the first time. Guided by the whips you make no mistake about whether you are an aye or a naye. You smile at the whips as you vote. They smile back.

Everything is going swimmingly. Not surprisingly really; you are a Conservative. Conservatives are all friends together. After all, being a Conservative, you would agree with pretty much everything your leader and your party says. 

Then something awkward comes along like House of Lords reform. Or more accurately, not House of Lords Reform, but what one MP called a “dogs breakfast”, claiming to be carefully drafted legislation which was then dubbed House of Lords Reform. 

Then for some MPs the whole damn thing falls apart. The happy MP suddenly realises that the Conflict of Interest answer was incomplete. The Country is still there. So is the Party. So is the Constituency. But there are two more now: the Career and the Personal Conviction. 

The most difficult thing in the world is the Personal Conviction. Conor Burns, now a former PPS, described this as the ability to look in the mirror in the morning. If this damn thing didn’t exist it would all be so easy - these conflicts would never pop up and annoy you. 

This could get tricky. For many rebels, the Country and the Personal Conviction agree with one another. But they disagree with at least two of the others. (Some rebels, of course, are just against the Party.)

The Party whips and management want to manage; that is their job; they like good MPs. A good MP does what they are told, votes in the required way and keeps disagreements out of the public eye. The Whips tell the MP that “this is essential for the party, the government and the country.”

If that doesn’t work, they get mean and nasty. They use the other C word: the Career. The Party gangs up with the Career.  

What about the Career? This is a button that touches where it hurts. The Career is the nuclear option that usually outguns The Personal Conviction. The Career is a bit important - which is why it is so strong. 

The MP has made huge life choices to become an MP. They have spent a bundle of money, possibly given up a better paying job, may even have had marital issues because the job has the weirdest hours. The MP has to commute between two home and, live apart from the family that they may have had to make change homes, schools and jobs. They have done all this for the sake of the Career. 

The Career is important - becoming or remaining a PPS; dreams of a Ministerial red suitcase. All is suddenly at risk for a potential rebel. That damn Conflict of Interest question is not so simple now. Of course there is no problem here if the MP agrees with the proposed legislation - everything is still in sync. Everything is good. 

NOTE! Let us assume that all those non-rebels did read, understand and agree with the legislation or at least the direction of the legislation and they honestly wanted to fix any flaws in the legislation at a later stage. I know many of the non-rebels very well and I know some of them to be the most principled people I have ever met.  

But there may well be others: those who say that they agree with the legislation that was proposed. As is; straight up. And yes! Of course they have read the legislation. They have to say that though. 

They have to because the Career is like the other C word. You can’t say it out loud. Ever. Your poor spouse and family hear it all the time. But no one else can ever, ever hear it. The MP can never ever admit to this being an influence in how they vote or act. It is different for the Whips of course. They can talk about the Career in every conversation - but the MP may never even breathe the words. 

So that is the past. The decisions have been made. The votes have been cast. But what future for a rebel? What audience must they convince? What narratives must they use? 

Some rebels are just trouble makers. I am not talking about them. The Whips and their future influence on the Career are a separate story. Memories are short though. There is too much talent amongst the rebel MPs for them to be ignored long term.  

The MP must first focus on the long game; still being an MP after 2015. And that will be decided by the Constituency which is made up of two, often very different, components. The selectorates and the electorates. 

What do the selectorates - the constituency associations - think of a rebel? These partisan Conservatives will generally be very happy to have a rebel as their MP, someone who can stand up to Clegg and Co and maybe even Cameron, someone independent minded and not “tame”. Someone with “backbone”. A “real local representative”, not “lobby fodder”. 

As Guido Fawkes said today: If they voted with the government last night, they’ll vote on anything… 

Then there are the Electorates. They are far more complicated. Thankfully. For a sitting MP or a displaced-due-to-boundary-changes-wannabe-MP to explain that they were voting against a bad reform rather than reform is tricky. (Have you ever noticed how often the word “reform” is so often misused to make bad, or partisan inspired, change sound good?)

I think some MPs will be spending more time than usual on their local press releases this week.  

Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to theNO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk

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