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The report which Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee on Standards in Public Life published on MPs’ expenses and allowances on Wednesday, as yet, only comprises recommendations. Nick Robinson, on his blog, has set out the likely process for its implementation, during which MPs might, he contends, attempt to ‘smooth off the sharpest edges’ of the proposed reforms.
The committee has advised that a mandatory end to double jobbing in Northern Ireland should be imposed in time for the 2011 Assembly election, although it is prepared to contemplate postponement until 2015. Sixteen of our eighteen MPs are also MLAs, whilst Alex Salmond retains the solitary dual mandate outside Northern Ireland. It is unlikely that strong opposition will emerge to this particular Kelly proposal.
Which makes the dilemma for Northern Irish parties, and in particular the DUP, all the more interesting. Its leader recently indicated that he was likely to abandon a hastily formulated commitment to end double jobbing. Peter Robinson’s initial promise was made at the height of the expenses scandal, after David Cameron undertook to legislate against dual mandates, should the Conservatives form the next government.
Robinson clearly believes that he can simply abandon his pledge without sustaining any significant collateral damage. The Kelly Report’s intervention might cause him to think again. If Cameron does become the next prime minister, any plan for an early end to double jobbing will carry an emotional heft which previously it might have lacked. A Tory government will simply be implementing, to the letter, an independent recommendation, and the DUP will struggle to argue that it is the specific target of a hostile measure.
So what options remain for Robinson and his party, as they contemplate strategy for a general election? How, for instance, will the DUP tackle the dual mandate problem in East Belfast, its leader’s parliamentary constituency? It could decide to restore its original pledge to abolish double jobbing. However Robinson has already admitted that this would spread talent desperately thin. The party’s advantage over rivals in the next general election is maintained because its candidates are relatively recognisable, within the rather cramped proscenium of Northern Irish politics. If the DUP is forced to dip deeper into its resources, and fields fairly obscure candidates, its rivals will be hugely heartened.
If this scenario were to unfold, Robinson would almost certainly forfeit his Westminster candidature. It is unthinkable that he would not stand at the next Assembly election. Without its leader’s large personal vote in the constituency, it is conceivable that the DUP could lose East Belfast.
Alternatively he might choose to ignore the Kelly Report, assuming that it is not implemented before the election, and run for Westminster. Surely a foolhardy option, unless Robinson calculates that dual mandates will be allowed to remain until 2015. David Cameron has indicated otherwise.
If, by 2011, Robinson remains an MP, and runs in the Assembly election, he will have two options, should he retain his Assembly seat (assuming the Tories have implemented the necessary reform). He will be forced either to resign his positions at Stormont and co-opt a replacement MLA for his constituency, or stand down at Westminster, precipitating a by election. These choices would be replicated for other double jobbing MPs. If this scenario were to unfold, very serious questions could be asked of Robinson’s judgement. The DUP would be accused of precipitating a needless by election, or a needless series of by elections, one year into a parliamentary term, purely to advance its own selfish short-term objectives.
If the DUP has problems, and surely it accepts that it does, the Kelly Report has exacerbated them substantially. Its leader has decisions to make. It will not be possible for Peter Robinson to extricate himself easily from his double jobbing conundrum.