Shamed Candy Crush MP: Fighting committee tedium one sweet at a time
Nigel Mills resorting to Candy Crush for entertainment in a boring select committee hearing has left him humiliated. But if it wasn't for his limp explanation, he'd deserve forgiveness.
It is, probably, this relatively unknown MP's worst day in politics. He has made the front page of the Sun not for the nobleness of his devotion to public works, or his achievements in bettering the welfare of his constituents, but for his excruciatingly inappropriate addiction to a computer game when he really should have been working.
The front page says it all really:
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— The Sun (@TheSunNewspaper) December 8, 2014
Mills' preference for moving computerised jewels around over scrutinising important affairs of state doesn't make for good press.
But there's something a little unfair about the kneejerk condemnations on social media this morning. They're very quick to judge him negatively, when there might just be some sort of mitigating factors at play here.
A Tory MP on candy crush when he should have been defending pensions. Not the worst example, but shows a disregard for the office he holds.
— Liam Carr (@LiamRCarr) December 8, 2014
We are all of us – even MPs – human. And it is not being said with sufficient volume this morning that there is nothing more tedious than a select committee meeting that drags on for hours and hours.
The format of these committee hearings is that about ten or so MPs sit around a horseshoe table and subject the witness – usually either a minister or expert of some kind – to endless questions.
That sounds quite interesting, but MPs on the panel aren't allowed to butt in and ask questions whenever they feel like it. Instead they have to wait their turn for a ten-minute exchange with the witness when they're in charge.
Beforehand, behind closed doors, the committee's MPs divide up the subject areas for questioning so they don't overlap too much. If you're one of the last MPs on the chairman's list, you might end up waiting a couple of hours before getting your turn.
Two hours of doing effectively nothing. To some people that would be a dream job. To MPs, whose lives are usually hectic and whose diary are always crammed, it can be intensely frustrating.
David Cameron gives evidence to the liaison committee of senior MPs
Only last week I stepped out of a committee hearing to have my ears bombarded with contempt for the system by one senior MP. "It's a stupid system," he hissed.
And yet parliament views select committees as one of its best innovations. They had been around for centuries, of course, but their modern incarnation has only really been effective for a few decades or so. Their reports carry clout because they are usually the result of a cross-party consensus – so anything critical they say of the government is usually newsworthy. It's just the way they get there which is so painful.
Journalists, too, are often vocal about the way MPs hold their evidence sessions. They generate headlines, but often leave many hoping for more. This is true even of the most exciting sessions: Bob Diamond appearing before the Treasury committee in the wake of the financial crisis, or Rupert Murdoch facing Tom Watson over phone-hacking. These are electric occasions but often disappoint.
The drama is the exception. Most committee hearings are dull affairs, scrutinising dull issues and holding dull people to account, which take a very long period of time. Ninety minutes into the last select committee session I attended the journalist sitting next to me jabbed me in the ribs. "Look!" he whispered delightedly. One of the MPs who hadn't been called on in a while had his eyes closed. He was, if not quite asleep, on the brink. A minute passed before he opened his eyes and looked at us, half-angry, half-guilty. We tried our best not to laugh too openly.
The session in which Mills was caught was probably not the most gripping. Pensions, even for those who voluntarily make them part of their life, are never going to be box-office.
All of this might go some way towards helping us appreciate why Mills would do something so stupid. It might even prompt a little bit of sympathy.
If it does, you haven't read the explanation for his behaviour. His four sentences of damage limitation quoted by the Sun are just agonising:
"It was a long meeting on pension reforms, which is an important issue that I take very seriously."
"Long meeting" screams 'this is an excuse, not a reason'. Highlighting the fact this is an important issue only appears to create a contradiction between what he claims and what he actually did.
"There was a bit of the meeting that I wasn't focusing on and I probably had a game or two."
The Sun reports that he played Candy Crush virtually non-stop for two-and-a-half hours. Rather long games, then.
"I should not do it but if you check the meeting, I would say I was fully engaged in asking questions I felt were particularly important on how we get pensions issues right."
Mills confirms his behaviour and his intentions are at odds with each other. How much weight would this excuse have in a normal job? How many people would be fired if they responded like this?
"I shall try not to do it in future."
The word 'try' should not be appearing in this sentence. It looks weak. It is half-hearted.
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) December 8, 2014
It's someone who is not 100% committed to their job. It shows laziness in such a blatantly blasé way that many of Mills' constituents might well raise their eyebrows.
If Mills were one of the many Tory MPs whose majorities are so enormous they can afford to treat their voters with disdain his behaviour might at least be understandable.
But as it is his 2010 majority, when he won his Amber Valley seat from Labour, is just 536 votes. Experts have already written off the chance of any candidate winning the seat in 2015 if they stand as a Tory because of the Ukip threat alone. Yet Mills is trying to do just that.
Today's headlines are not going to help him much. It makes his behaviour inexplicable. Many future politicians will continue to be bored into submission by parliament's imperfect select committee system, but the odds are Mills will not be one of them.