Forget second jobs, ministers should do start with the grunt work of their first ones
In a storm of sleaze allegations, it was an unfortunate day for Sir Geoffrey Cox to publish details of his £400,000 a year job at Withers LLP. For the pleasure of being paid almost half a million pounds, he offers “international legal services”. Sir Geoffrey, is, after all, a QC. To borrow a lawyer’s phrase, it is not prima facie perverse for him to keep a foot in the professional world.
What is astounding is how rarely he showed his face in the House of Commons. Since losing just one of his jobs, as Attorney General, in February last year, he has contributed to one single debate. It hardly bears pointing out: being paid a handsome sum for work that does not prevent your first duty – representing your constituents – is wholly different from having a part-time gig as an MP.
But, while fraught with difficulties and misaligned interests, there is a value to being in the workforce outside of Westminster. For most of us, work forces us to spend time with people we might otherwise avoid in our tight social circles. For politicians, having a foot in the world outside of SW1 or their constituencies, can provide inspiration to do their real jobs better.
What of our esteemed Cabinet ministers? Having a seat at the table is, as eagle-eyed journalists pointed out, technically a second job.
Last year, Priti Patel went out on a Border Force patrol on the Channel; she who passes the sentence should also swing the sword. Imagine, for a moment, if we put an end to the heavily curated photo opportunities of Rishi Sunak in a hard-hat and a high-vis vest at some construction site tangentially related to some pot of money dished out by Treasury (afterall, who isn’t getting Treasury cash these days?). What if, instead, the Chancellor had to spend a shift picking up the phone to confused taxpayers, trying to figure out their tax code or recent sixth-form leavers trying to track down their National Insurance number.
Sure, our cabinet ministers are undoubtedly pressed for time, what with all the Very Important Things they do every day. But they should be able to find 12 hours every calendar month to understand their brief better: figure out the inefficiencies that happen not one or two rungs, but entire skyscrapers below them.
Few would argue that Gavin Williamson, during his tenure as Education Secretary, would have been worse off for spending a bit more time in the classroom, albeit, perhaps on the kids’ side of the teacher’s desk. Nadhim Zahawi could do a stint as a teacher’s aide; Sajid Javid could work an admin shift in A&E, perhaps trailing behind Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan to stump up some bipartisan support. It’s not hard to imagine Michael Gove, the builder, laying slabs of concrete, puffing on a cigarette behind the scaffolding of some new-build affordable housing development.
Meanwhile, Ben Wallace can sing sea shanties and wash the decks of the Royal yacht we’re paying for. Liz Truss could spend some time answering the phone in a far-flung embassy: (“Hello, this is the British embassy, how may I direct your call?”) and Grant Shapps could do with figuring out how to drive a train, or at least offer his own personal contribution to the HGV driver push.
Cabinet ministers’ success or failure is often determined by their vantage point. Ambition to tackle the big, serious issues is too-often hamstrung by the thousand tiny inefficiencies in the systems they command.
When the pandemic struck, a teacher I know said to me: “It’s all very well for them to get city kids learning remotely, but not everyone has wifi.” Or laptops, as it turned out. The things which are so obvious to the people doing the jobs are often missed by those turning the wheels at the top.
Nadine Dorries could do an overnight shift on the BBC newsdesk who would be delighted to have her.