What You Can Get Away With » cons

It’s Monday, and so it’s time for a new week of silly proposals from obscure Tory MPs. First there’s Michael Fabricant batting his eyes enticingly at UKIP, and then there’s this as well: (via)

For individuals aged under 25 who have not yet paid National Insurance contributions for a certain period, perhaps five years, unemployment benefit should be in the form of a repayable loan. An unemployed teenager would still receive the same amount of cash as now, for example, but they would be expected to repay the value once in work.

Like many proposals from the nuttier fringes of the Tory party, it reads like a parody – it’s not enough for the poor to be poor, let’s put them in debt to the state as well! – and the information at the bottom of the piece left me just as confused:

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood, and a member of the Free Enterprise Group.

The name, the constituency, the ‘Free Enterprise Group’ – they all sound like things that could exist in Britain and the Tory Party, but do they actually exist? Is Skidmore just the Richard Geefe of the Tory right, perhaps Craig Brown sneaking something under the radar?

Apparently, no. Like James Delingpole, and so much else that passes for ‘commentary’ at the Telegraph, it’s entirely and depressingly genuine.

But it got me thinking – how hard would it be for someone to create an entirely fake MP and get people (including the media) to believe they were real? Kingswood, for instance, is one of those generic-sounding names that could be anywhere in the country (it’s actually to the north of Bristol), but if an article told you that it’s author was the MP for Queensbridge, for instance, would you question it? After all, there are 650 MPs, and who can remember all of them and their constituencies? Then if your fake MP was spotted, you could always invent a fake Lord to take their place – even political obsessives can’t name more than a handful of crossbench peers – though that is a trick that someone else has tried to pull recently. (But then again, surely Christopher Monckton is a parody that’s gone out of control?)

And finally, if you’ve had your fill of Parliament, you could always try setting up a fake Council. The 1974 Local Government Act gave us lot of names that can fool even the most experienced geographer – Vale Of White Horse, Three Rivers, Dacorum, Adur – as well as a lot of Mids, Wests, Easts, Souths and Norths, so it should be easy enough to come up with a name. Of course, there’s no chance of the media paying any attention to you, no matter what you do, unless you find some way to make them think you’re actually a London borough. Still, you’ll likely get lots of invites to attend and speak at Really Important Conferences.

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With almost ten years of blogging experience behind me (and just typing that makes me feel old) I think it’s time that I found some ways to cash in all the time I’ve wasted on it to make a quick buck. Sorry, what I meant to say there was ‘utilise my extensive cross-platform social media communication skills to monetise my experience and provide a variety of value-added activities to my valued clients’.

The problem, of course, is that I’m not shameless enough to even attempt some of the con tricks that others use as a business model. As a councillor, I’m regularly bombarded with invitations to conferences on important policy issues, all of which appear to be the opportunity to spend several hundred pounds to sit in the poorly ventilated ‘conference suite’ of a mid-market London hotel while someone reads out a PowerPoint presentation of easily downloadable information at you, as the precursor to a limp ‘discussion of current challenges’ (aka ‘tell us what other issues we might be able to sell you a conference on’). If I was savvy and soulless enough, I wouldn’t be complaining about these, but creating my own company to do the same.

Rather than set up a company to do this, I could do it in the name of a think tank instead. That way, not only could I establish spurious conferences, I could publish reports and discussion papers on topics that were in no way determined by whoever wanted to sponsor me, and with robustly independent conclusions that just happened to coincide with their needs. I could even give something back to the next generation by creating a Junior Associate programme that would teach them all the skills they needed to be effective policy professionals, including the best search terms to put into Google, important errors to avoid when copy-and-pasting and just how much you can get away with charging people for admittance into this exclusive programme.

Has anyone founded the Michael Stone Institute yet? A few years ago, myself and another blogger (whose identity I’ll protect unless they’re happy for it to be revealed) did discuss creating a spoof ‘Straw Man Institute‘ with the promise that we’d ‘make the arguments no one else will’. We thought there’d be a ready market amongst commentators and other blowhards. ‘SMI (a noted liberal think tank)’ would happily have provided reports on why everyone in Britain should be forced to be gay Muslims for Peter Hitchens to bloviate against.

I think the project foundered on two problems. First, we didn’t have the enthusiasm to carry it on beyond the initial idea, and second, the market was far too skewed by existing companies. There’s no point in advertising yourselves as being willing to make the arguments that no one else will, when there are plenty of people willing to do that and actually mean what they say, often for free. When we’re living in a world where Demos not only has a ‘Progressive Conservatism Project’ but its director can write what amounts to ‘Iain Duncan Smith must destroy the welfare state in order to save it’, what hope is there for a mild and humble parodist to make a living?

In a world where an internet get-rich-quick mogul can make it into the Cabinet, I suppose I need to rebrand myself as an expert in hashtag virality. I can do you a quick seminar for £350, maybe even £250 if you want to use our special early bird booking rate.

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