|A ‘silly old fool’|
We all remember that time at school when we were asked what we wanted to do when we grew up. There would always be the familiar ones – fireman, police officer, astronaut, etc.
Now, imagine if you’d said to your teacher “When I grow up, I want to make lots of money for sitting on my backside and doing absolutely nothing.” The teacher and the whole class would have laughed at you and told you not to be so silly, that no such thing could be possible.
And yet, that is exactly what one Mr Dennis Skinner has done for most of his 84 years. He has made a career out of getting paid a pretty penny for doing nothing.
It’s true he was a miner for 20 years, hence why I said “most of his 84 years.” But for the bulk of his life he has been an MP and for him it’s been one long lark. When I was at school, there were a few occasions when, feeling mischievous, I and a couple of friends would “bunk off” from class for the afternoon. We didn’t do it often, just a few times for a laugh. Skinner has basically bunked off from working for a living for 46 years.
You may ask: well, isn’t that true of many MPs, both Labour and Tory? Indeed it is. But what makes Skinner particularly loathsome is that he’s been bestowed with a reputation for being some sort of man of the people, a salt of the earth type who fights for ordinary folk, a socialist hero. To say this reputation is undeserved is the understatement of the century.
What is it that Skinner is best known for? Ask anyone. The first thing they’d say is his annual remark when Black Rod calls on MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech. Most of them have been risible, especially his recent pathetic “Hands off the BBC,” save for the one and only time he made a genuinely funny comment asking if Helen Mirren was being kept on standby.
What else? Oh, yes, shouting at successive Tory prime ministers at PMQs, making ad hominem attacks on ministers and being suspended from the House for unparliamentary language.
And that’s pretty much it. He’s a professional yob, no better, no smarter than a red faced alky sitting on a park bench shouting and swearing at passers-by. Except that, unlike the alky in the park, Skinner is paid £74,962 a year to be a full time loudmouth. And that’s not even including his pensions and expenses.
Oh yes, expenses. Skinner and his fans made great hay out of him supposedly being one of the “saints” in the expenses scandal. That’s completely false, of course. He was nothing of the sort. He claimed more than £1000 for accountants’ fees; he claimed “£100 a month to cover the cost of unspecified sundries”; he “regularly claimed the maximum £400 a month food allowance allowable under the Additional Costs Allowance”; he “received £3,500 towards the cost of a new bathroom in his London home”; and in 2005 he claimed £1,760 “to cover the cost of a replacement bed settee from Sofa World” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5412667/Dennis-Skinner-claimed-for-accountants-fees-on-MPs-expenses.html). What a socialist hero and man of the people!
In the interests of fairness and balance – something the left never ever grant their opponents – I will acknowledge that Skinner said the total cost of the bathroom renovation was £12,000 and that he wanted to only claim a smaller amount. He also said the bathroom refit was based on “medical advice following his double heart bypass operation.” The replacement sofa was also for medical reasons and that too, he said, was less than the full amount he paid.
OK, so to show we’re not cruel ogres, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and accept what he says about the health reasons for those expenses. It still leaves the accountancy fees amounting to £1527.50, “unspecified sundries” totalling £100 a month, and the maximum £400 a month food allowance, all of which his annual salary could cover without making barely a dent in his wealth.
But given we’ve had moats and duck ponds and hanging baskets put on expenses, I will admit Skinner’s list isn’t especially shocking. But there is one area his hands definitely aren’t clean.
There are now about 167 MPs “who have wives, children or even parents on the public payroll” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2864800/MPs-pay-3-8m-family-50-higher-2010-General-Election-quarter-employing-relative.html). And among that 167 is socialist hero, man of the people, salt of the earth Skinner, who “employs” his partner, Lois Blasenheim, as his senior parliamentary assistant. He actually raised her pay to £39,999. That means the Skinner household’s combined annual income is £114,961. And every single penny of that comes from the public purse. We are paying for Skinner to sit on his backside and shout. And, again, that doesn’t include whatever pension income and other income he may get. I daresay most of Skinner’s constituents can only dream of earning that sum of money annually. But as well all know from left wing logic, raking in the dosh is okay as long as it’s one of them doing it.
Now, his defenders might say he’s a good MP when it comes to his constituents. And maybe he is. But I find it hard to see how he can represent his constituents when he’s in the House every single day. His Wikipedia profile states that he is known “for never missing a Commons session.” Isn’t that something to applaud? No, it’s not. Simply being present at every single session is not in itself a great accomplishment unless you’ve got something valuable to contribute or to gain. For most of the time, Skinner is in his usual spot, the first seat on the front bench below the gangway, sitting idly, only rising when he has an insult to shout or an unfunny joke to make. He never asks any serious questions, he never attends a session in order to broaden his understanding of things, because he’s just not that sort of MP. All he cares about is being a loudmouth and getting paid for it.
However, there was one period in which he went strangely silent. That period was 1997 to 2010. For 13 years, this brave, fearless hero kept his mouth shut as Tony Blair brought in grotesque PFI contracts that have left hospitals in debt to the tune of billions, invaded Iraq on lies, raided pensions and increased poverty and income inequality. Thirteen years in which one would have expected that razor sharp wit of his to be put to good use castigating Blair and then Brown for their record. But no, this gutsy crusader who is lauded by his acolytes went into radio silence because he didn’t dare say anything critical or confrontational to Blair and Brown.
But there was one occasion I remember he stood up in PMQs during those years to ask a question. What, you ask excitedly, did Skinner finally say? Did he stand up and berate Blair for his lies over Iraq? Did he stand up and pour scorn over Brown for increasing pensions by 75p a week? Of course not. Comrade Skinner stood up and began by asking Blair if he’d seen Groundhog Day. The reason he was asking, he explained, was that Tories and Lib Dems were still complaining about the Iraq war and that even though he himself had voted against the invasion, it was becoming the same thing every day and he was fed up of hearing them going on about it.
That’s correct, friends! The one and only time this brave, heroic, gutsy crusader for social justice stood up to say anything to Tony Blair during his time as Prime Minister was to criticise Tory and Lib Dem MPs who were still asking pertinent questions over the Iraq war! If that’s not being a fearless MP, I don’t know what is.
And as soon as Labour went into opposition, back came the gobby Skinner at PMQs, red faced, shouting, insulting, making stupid jokes and blaming the government for everything under the sun.
I don’t pretend that Skinner is the worst MP in the House. There are MPs more wasteful and greedy and despicable. The member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, for example. But it is precisely because Skinner is unjustly and unquestioningly celebrated as some maverick champion, when he is, in fact, a lazy good for nothing living off the public purse for almost half a century, that I find him so objectionable and offensive. It’s time this myth that’s been built around him by his gormless fans and left wing commentators was demolished. Dennis Skinner is no one’s hero. He’s no one’s champion. He is someone who makes lots of money for sitting on his backside and doing absolutely nothing.