What are MPs for?



After the expenses scandal, it is time to ask what Members of Parliament are for. The traditional formal arguments are inadequate as they fail to engage with what MPs actually do. A typology is useful in illuminating the different ways in which MPs see their role: as Lickspittles, Loyalists, Localists, Legislators, Loners and Loose Cannons. Current trends in the performance of these roles can be identified, raising questions about the nature of politics and the vitality of Parliament.


  • 1

    This is the text of a lecture in memory of Eleanor Rathbone, delivered at the University of Liverpool in February 2010.

  • 2

    See, for example, A. Bevins, ‘The question is: What are MPs for?’, Independent, 1 March 1989. When sleaze made its appearance in the 1990s, an article in the Financial Times declared: ‘Amid all the rancour, the real question may have yet to be addressed. … Why has no one ever thought of defining what an MP should do?’ (6 November 1995).

  • 3

    Humphrey Malins MP, House of Commons, 3 November 2009.

  • 4

    M. Martin, ‘Busy-bee MPs have lost their real purpose, so let's cull some’, Sunday Times, 8 November 2009.

  • 5

    MPs’ Expenses: A Consultation, Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, January 2010, p. 15.

  • 6

    C. Mullin, ‘Welcome. Are you a lickspittle or a loner?’, The Times, 19 January 2010. The terms used in this article first sparked the idea for the typology used here.

  • 7

    Quoted in M. Rush, The Role of the Member of Parliament since 1868, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 114–15.

  • 8

    Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Revitalising the Chamber: The Role of the Back Bench Member, HC 337, 2007, p. 9.

  • 9

    An example is the job evaluation model applied to MPs by Pricewaterhouse Coopers for the Review Body on Senior Salaries: Review of Parliamentary Pay, Pensions and Allowances 2007, January 2008, Cm 7270-I.

  • 10

    Edward Leigh MP, House of Commons, 26 January 2010.

  • 11

    W. E. Gladstone, ‘The declining efficiency of Parliament’, The Quarterly Review, Vol. XCIX, June and September 1856, pp. 521–70.

  • 12

    P. Hollis, Jennie Lee: A Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 138, 373.

  • 13

    Speech on 26 March 1955; this extract was published in Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 8, 1954–55, p. 302.

  • 14

    House of Commons, 20 February 1979.

  • 15

    Quoted in Rush, Role of the Member of Parliament, p. 188.

  • 16

    H. Fairlie, The Life of Politics, London, Methuen, 1968, p. 15. He also recorded that: ‘There is, today, a more than normal discontent with the country's political system and its politics’ (p. 235).

  • 17

    Memorandum to Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Revitalising the Chamber: The Role of the Back Bench Member, HC 337, 2007.

  • 18

    Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, 2009.

  • 19

    Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and Other Appointments from Outside Parliament, HC 330, 2010, p. 11.

  • 20

    Quoted in A. King, ‘The rise of the career politician in Britain—and its consequences’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 11, 1981, pp. 24985.

  • 21

    Ibid., p. 285.

  • 22

    ‘What a job's worth’, Public Finance, 6–12 November 2009, p. 5. Similarly, Graham Brady MP suggested that the electorate might have a ‘deeper unease’ after the expenses scandal: ‘Could it be that they are starting to wonder what their MPs are actually for?’, The House Magazine, 9 November 2009, p. 38.

  • 23

    S. Pederson, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 377–8.