Sleaze scandals have dominated the headlines for two weeks now. From a party crisis in the wake of Owen Paterson attempting to clear his name, to claims of faked constituency visits and Geoffrey Cox rinsing the taxpayer whilst living in a Caribbean tax-haven, there has been much debate about ‘corruption’ not just within the Tory party, but within British politics more broadly. Between the resignations, investigations and U-turns, it seems as though no-one is clear on what they’re angry about anymore.
The crux of the issue was at first paid advocacy and the breaching of conduct in respect to second jobs. This quickly turned into a Labour campaign against second jobs altogether; a ridiculous proposal that has gained traction with those so concerned with rooting out corruption that they’re willing to surrender their own common sense.
If corruption is the issue at stake, then second-jobs for MPs are not inherently wrong. Should those MPs who concurrently work as doctors give up their practice? Even for roles which fall outside the scope of NHS glory, there is little reason to suggest that MPs should not partake in other work, so long as they abide by rules and regulations. If Keir Starmer had any confidence in the standards committee he fought to protect, then instances in which MPs use their influence in Parliament for monetary gain would be investigated and halted.
Illegal acts of corruption, of which influence-peddling and cronyism have been primarily highlighted, are rightly criminalised in the UK. Corruption undermines public trust, the legitimacy of government and the effective provision of services. For those instances in which second-jobs interfere with Parliamentary work, or multi-million-pound contracts are repeatedly handed to friends of the government rather than companies whose merit warrants the award, investigations should ensue.
Nevertheless, pressure from the Opposition and the public is forcing an over-reaction. Having been backed into a corner by the Labour Party, Boris Johnson performed his favourite manoeuvre, albeit a partial U-turn this time, and ordered a ban on MPs accepting “any paid work to provide services as a Parliamentary strategist, advisor or consultant” and recommending that any outside work undertaken by an MP should not interfere with their Parliamentary duties. In doing so, Johnson is further fracturing his already shaky party and will have to answer to those MPs facing a substantial loss of income.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s two recommendations weren’t enough to satisfy the Labour Party. So, what is it that really infuriates Keir Starmer? Is it MPs having second jobs? Is it that Conservative MPs appear to get paid a substantial amount more for their services than Labour MPs? Or is it those instances in which having a second job is the breeding ground of actual corruption? If it were the latter, Starmer would have my full support. His proposals of a blanket ban on second jobs for MPs however suggests it is not.
To maintain the highest calibre of political representatives, MPs who would otherwise be earning more than their Parliamentary salary should be able to earn additional income from second jobs so long as they do not exploit their position of influence or fail to fully perform their public duties.
The International Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, also made the valid, common-sense point, that so long as MPs are spending appropriate amount of time on their Parliamentary duties, spending “10 or 15 hours a week doing something else, whatever you choose to do in your spare time, whether that’s paid or not paid, is something that is part of the richness of what you bring as an individual to your role as an MP”. Notably, this would preclude the amount of outside work being conducted by the likes of Geoffrey Cox from permissibility.
That said, such a system would still be outlawed under Labour’s proposals. Johnson’s government is already becoming the most un-conservative Tory government to date and accepting Starmer’s proposals in full would go further than rooting out corruption. Instead, it would challenge an MP’s right to outside interests and work even when there is no impact on their duties and no evidence of corruption.
The outcome of the sleaze scandal will ultimately rest on the interpretation of “Parliamentary” consultancy. With this in mind, a ban on all outside consultancy is surely no way to keep the party together, nor is it a proportionate response to rooting out corruption.