MPs' pay rise: PM told he can't stop it

What must have seemed a good idea at the time of the MPs' expenses scandal is now giving the prime minister a political migraine.

Faced by public outrage five years ago, the House of Commons decided it would, in future, no longer set its own pay and conditions.

The new body that has that task - the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority - is about to unveil proposals for a significant increase in the pay of ordinary backbench MPs from just over £66,000 a year to a figure well over £70,000 starting after the next election.

At a time when there is significant pay restraint in the public and private sectors this would be likely to cause more outrage from voters.

Speaking in Islamabad, David Cameron said that any such proposal "would be unthinkable unless the cost of politics was frozen and cut" - in other words a link between an increase in pay to a less generous pension scheme (a proposal also likely to come from Ipsa), another attempt to cut the number of MPs or other proposals to cut the bill for Westminster.

Ed Miliband has urged Ipsa to set pay in the light of public sector settlements. Nick Clegg has also urged restraint.

However, no party leader has the power to block the recommendations of the independent regulator, nor are MPs meant to vote on the matter.

What's more, I understand, the prime minister has been warned that if the government did try to impose pay restraint it would be outvoted by the two thirds of Members of Parliament who told the independent review that they were were paid too little.

This year and next MPs have had a 1% pay rise. In the two years before that their pay was frozen. Ministers had a 5% pay cut.

For decades independent studies have proposed significant increases in the pay of MPs, many of whom complain they deal every day with head teachers, doctors or council leaders who are paid much more then they are.

One reason why their expenses or allowances system became more and more generous and open to abuse was to still backbench anger at pay restraint imposed by ministers who earn significantly more than their colleagues.

None of these arguments is likely to do very much to still the fury of those voters who regard the political class as living in a world apart.

Update 08.30am: Parliamentary arithmetic is not the only reason the PM will not block any recommended pay rise. He knows the long standing arguments for higher pay for MPs; is aware of the squeeze that has been put on their incomes by a tougher expenses regime and understands the consequences for party discipline of denying his troops something an independent body says they should get.

Interestingly, contrary to one newspaper report yesterday, Ed Miliband has not said that he would try to block any pay rise.

All party leaders are still hoping that IPSA will be listening and will find a way to lessen their problems.