Last month, I spent an hour driving to the home of a fellow MP. When I got there, he went to his chicken-run and gave me half a dozen new-laid eggs. I then got into his car and we drove, very carefully, for 30 minutes to the venue of a function which I was to address. I spent 30 minutes before the meal talking politely to guests about bovine tuberculosis, the prospects for the English Cricket Team and the fine weather. We then adjourned to a barn that had been converted into an art gallery, where I spent an hour eating a good three course meal. I cannot remember what was discussed, as I was wondering what on earth I would say when, after the meal, silence was prayed for the Rt Hon Member for North West Hants.
I addressed the company for 20 minutes, the first five of which were spent, as custom requires, singing the praises of whoever’s constituency I find myself in. During my address, three people went to sleep. I answered questions for a further twenty minutes – including the statutory one as to why we weren’t a more effective Opposition - and was then presented with a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee Champagne. I then took 90 minutes to get home, wondering if I could persuade my wife to scramble the eggs and open the champagne, so we could have a proper breakfast in the morning.
Why do I tell you this? Because I have to. We have tightened up the rules in the House of Commons, and we have to reveal outside earnings, and the amount of time we spend earning them.
I happen to be a full-time MP with no outside earnings, but I approve of MP’s bringing their experience to our debates, and am wary of a House of Commons composed exclusively of a political class reared in a hothouse of Student Unions, Think Tanks and Special Adviserships. However, the definition of “earnings” apparently includes the home-laid eggs and the bottle of champagne. The question I have to ask myself, confronted with the form for the Register of Members’ Interests, is “Would I have been given the eggs and champagne, if I hadn’t made the speech?” The answer is obviously no. So I earned them. And as there is no “de minimis “limit – in other words , all earnings, however small, have to be declared, the eggs and the champagne will have to be declared. Along with the time I spent earning it.
The good news is that I don’t get paid for writing this column, so I won’t have to declare it. Nor indeed will I have to declare the time it took me to write it.
But, since you are interested, 14 minutes 37 seconds – the length of the second movement of Schubert’s 9th Symphony, interpreted by Leonard Bernstein, which inspired it. And that includes time off to make a cup of tea, finish yesterday’s Times Crossword, take a photograph of the duck in the garden, and clean my fingernails.