It’s corruption from the top… and there is no point shilly-shallying around pretending it’s something else”. Boris Johnson’s recent attempt to undermine the independent standards process for MPs over the Owen Paterson affair provoked this strong response from Sir Keir Starmer, in perhaps his angriest outburst since he became Leader of the Opposition.
Owen Paterson was investigated by the independent Commission for Parliamentary Standards over alleged lobbying on behalf of Randox laboratories, who pay him £100,000 a year in consultancy fees. Although a consultancy in itself is not unlawful, the standards commissioner called Paterson’s approaches to ministers on behalf of Randox a “serious breach of the rules”, “an egregious case of paid advocacy” and recommended a 30-day suspension from the Commons.
Randox gained testing contracts worth £500 million during the Covid pandemic in closed processes which were investigated by the Good Law Project and Open Democracy. The National Audit Office found that contacts of ministers and MPs were 10 times more likely to receive contracts through a VIP-lane without competitive processes.
I have written previously about the horse-racing links between Paterson’s late wife Rose, a director of the Jockey Club which runs the Aintree racecourse, and the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Randox continues to sponsor the Grand National, held annually at Aintree. Polly Toynbee called these kinds of links rather benignly a “chumocracy.”
What gave rise to Starmer’s ire was Boris Johnson’s attempt to overturn the standards watchdog’s recommendation by scrapping the current independent system and trying to set up an alternative process designed and run by the Tories. In doing so, Starmer asserted that the PM was “leading his troops through the sewer”. The former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, also strongly condemned Boris Johnson’s behaviour as “shameful”, “arrogant” and “politically corrupt”.
This is one more example of the PM’s many attempts to bend or rewrite the rules which include: trying to suspend Parliament; ignoring Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules; refusing to sack Priti Patel after her bullying behaviour broke the ministerial code; and keeping Robert Jenrick in post after he fast-tracked an unlawful planning decision.
The only reason Boris Johnson made a screeching U-turn on the Owen Paterson affair was because of the outcry from his own backbenchers and the searing tabloid headlines. Owen Paterson resigned from Parliament soon after, still maintaining his innocence.
Far from quietening down, the Paterson fiasco has given rise to new revelations about MPs’ second jobs and sparked a debate about whether they should hold other posts at all, because of the risk of conflicts of interest and unlawful lobbying, not to mention that outside paid positions take them away from constituency work.
The most striking and ironic example is that of Sir Geoffrey Cox QC, former Attorney General, who has earned more than £1m from his work defending the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a well-known tax haven, against Foreign Office charges of corruption. Not only did he spend a month during Covid lockdown in an expensive villa in the BVI, thousands of miles away from his constituency, it is also claimed that he used his parliamentary office to conduct BVI business remotely. Despite Cox’s arrogant denial of rule breach, Labour has now referred him to the standards commissioner.
Other cases which have come to light are Julian Smith, Chris Grayling and Andrew Mitchell, who have all earned thousands of pounds a year from second jobs, on top of their £81, 932 salary as MPs. More than 30 MPs earn up to £40,000 per year from second jobs and consultancies, the majority being Conservatives.
Tim Loughton, Tory MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, is included in this list. MPs have to declare all outside earnings over £100 and record them in the register of financial interests, but amazingly, there is no current limit on the number of hours they are allowed to work outside Parliament.
They are forbidden for getting paid for lobbying on behalf of external companies – the rule that Owen Paterson was found to have breached. The Commons standards committee is now considering whether to ban MPs’ consultancy work.
There is also the ‘revolving door’, a practice by which former MPs use their political career as a springboard into lucrative private sector work and then lobby on behalf of those companies, although officially this is forbidden for two years after leaving Parliament. David Cameron’s frantic lobbying for Greensill is a recent example.
Boris Johnson weighed into the debate about MPs’ second jobs by supporting them in principle, but warning MPs to follow the rules. This looks rather like a case of pots and kettles, especially as it is so soon after he tried to change the rules over parliamentary standards.
There are also ongoing complaints about the cost of Downing Street refurbishment, and his use of Zac Goldsmith’s holiday villa in Marbella.
The PM has refused to apologise for the Owen Paterson affair and continues to assert that the UK “is not remotely a corrupt country.” But accusations of sleaze continue to grow and recent polls show Labour ahead for the first time in a year. The story is not going to go away.
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