Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have dismissed allegations of wrongdoing in a new “cash for access” scandal involving the two former foreign secretaries.
What are they accused of doing?
Both MPs were filmed meeting undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches posing as a fictitious Hong Kong-based communications agency called PMR, appearing to offer to use their positions to benefit the firm in exchange for thousands of pounds.
Mr Straw, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, is said to have described how he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year.
He was also said to have claimed to have used “charm and menace” to convince the then Ukrainian Prime Minister to change laws on behalf of the same company, ED&F Man.
Mr Straw met the undercover reporters at his office in the Commons - a potential breach of Commons rules - explaining that he normally charges a fee of £5,000 a day for his work.
Sir Malcolm, the Conservative head of the parliamentary committee which oversees Britain's intelligence agencies, also met with “PMR”.
He allegedly claimed that he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world because of his status.
“You’d be surprised by how much free time I have. I’m self-employed so nobody pays me a salary. I have to earn my income,” Sir Malcolm was filmed saying.
For his services he discussed his usual fee of ‘somewhere in the region of £5,000 to £8,000’ for a half a day's work. He earns £67,000 as an MP.
What do they say about it?
Both MPs have denied any wrongdoing and referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.
Sir Malcolm repeated his refusal to stand down on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“These are very serious allegations. They are unfounded and I'm going to fight them with all my strength,” he added.
"None of the matters are remotely to do with intelligence or security.”
In the meetings, Mr Straw had made clear he would not take on the role while he remained an MP and emphasised that the discussions only referred to possible employment after he leaves Parliament in May – although he was tipped for a seat in the House of Lords.
He told Radio 4 he was “scrupulous” in observing all Parliamentary rules but had referred himself to the Commissioner for Standards “because of the way this appears”
“I very much regret the fact that I ever saw these people,” he added.
Are they in trouble with their parties?
Yes – Mr Straw already planned to stand down as MP at the general election in May but had been tipped for a Labour peerage, while Sir Malcolm is still in Parliament.
A Labour Party spokesman said: “We have seen the disturbing allegations against Jack Straw in the Daily Telegraph. The chief whip has spoken to Jack Straw.
"He has agreed to refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and in the meantime he has agreed the best course of action is to suspend himself from the parliamentary Labour Party."
A Conservative Party spokesman said Sir Malcolm would be meeting the Chief Whip later today but did not say whether the Tories would be taking any disciplinary action.
If they did not take any money, what's the problem?
The suggestion that they would even hypothetically take money from a private company to use their Parliamentary influence and contacts to benefit it is hugely damaging, even if no rules are found to be broken.
The MPs are described as “elder statesmen of Westminster” by Dispatches and have built up considerable power in their long careers.
Mr Straw, who has been the Labour MP for Blackburn since 1979, has held positions including Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Justice Secretary.
Sir Malcolm is still the head of the highly influential Intelligence and Security Select Committee and the Tory MP for Kensington.
He has previously held posts including Foreign Secretary, Transport Secretary and Scottish Secretary.
Was anyone else involved?
In the course of the investigation, the Telegraph/Dispatches team contacted 12 MPs saying PMR wanted to hire influential British politicians to join its advisory board and get a foothold in the UK and Europe.
Six did not respond, one said his contacts were not for sale and another refused to meet until he checked the firm out in Hong Kong.
What impact will the scandal have?
For the affected parties, it could not have come at a worse time in the run-up to the general election but their opponents will be seizing the chance to pounce.
As Mr Straw was already due to leave Parliament in little over two months, he may not be forced to resign but has already been suspended from Labour.
Sir Malcolm will be fighting to retain his seat – both from the prospect of resignation and in the general election as voters react to the row.
After his meeting with the Chief Whip today, he may be suspended from the Conservatives or from his chairmanship of the security committee.
Such a scandal is ripe to be weaponised by opposition MPs as an attack on lobbying and existing political networks so close to the general election.
Parties like Ukip and the Greens may seek to benefit by contrasting their new candidates with the tarnished establishment but that ship has sailed for the battered Lib Dems.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband are unlikely to attack each other over “cash for access” as MPs in both their parties are involved.
This all sounds a bit familiar…
That’s because it is. This is one of several scandals dubbed “cash for access”, where MPs have allegedly offered their influence for money.
Five years ago, Channel 4’s Dispatches conducted another undercover investigation into how other MPs were asking for large sums of money for their services to private businesses.
The repercussions were huge, with former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon banned from Parliament for five years and former transport minister Stephen Byers barred for two.
An inquiry was held that resulted in the tightening of rules. The broadcaster said five years on, it wanted to see if anything had changed or whether “politicians still falling short of public expectations”.
In pictures: Not-so virtuous MPs
In pictures: Not-so virtuous MPs
1/17 Lord Hanningfield
Lord Hanningfield claimed more than £3,000 in a month by regularly 'clocking in' to the House of Lords to claim his £300 daily attendance allowance. The former Conservative leader of Essex Council was also convicted in May 2011 for fiddling his expenses.
2/17 Denis MacShane
The disgraced former Labour minister was jailed for six months at the Old Bailey in July 2013 after admitting making bogus expense claims amounting to nearly £13,000.
3/17 Maria Miller
Although she was cleared of making false expenses claims, Maria Miller was ordered to pay back £5,000 in overclaimed taxpayer-funded expenses on her second home. Mrs Miller’s apology in the Commons lasting just over half a minute was widely viewed as grudging and perfunctory. She resigned over the row in April.
4/17 Eric Joyce
Falkirk MP Eric Joyce was fined £1,500 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in March after admitting abusive behaviour at the city’s airport. Mr Joyce repeatedly hurled insults at baggage handlers, and abused a black police officer during the incident in May 2012. He has said he will now “reflect” on whether to continue at Westminster until the election next year.
5/17 Mark Harper
Immigration minister Mark Harper resigned after it emerged his cleaner was working in the country illegally. Mr Harper quit after he discovered his cleaner, whom he employed at his London flat for seven years, did not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
6/17 Lord Rennard
The former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats faced allegations of sexual harassing several women, claims he denies. He was suspended after refusing to bow to calls from Mr Clegg to apologise to the women.
7/17 Mark Menzies
Former Conservative MP Mark Menzies resigned as a ministerial aide following allegations made by a Brazilian rent boy in March. The MP for Fylde in Lancashire resigned his position as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) amid allegations which appeared in a tabloid newspaper, some of which he strenuously denied.
8/17 Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi apologised in March for charging the taxpayer £5,822 to heat his stables. It later emerged that he had claimed 31p on his expenses for paperclips, 53p for a holepunch, 63p for ballpoint pens and 89p for a stapler.
9/17 Liam Fox
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned in 2011 over his working relationship with his friend Adam Werritty, which saw the Tory MP ordered to repay £3,000 of expenses for allowing Mr Werritty to live rent-free at his taxpayer-funded second home for a year. Mr Fox faced further embarrassment when it was revealed successfully claimed 3p of taxpayers’ cash for a car journey of fewer than 100 metres.
10/17 Aidan Burley
The ex-Tory MP for Cannock Chase was photographed at a Nazi-themed stag party in 2011. He admitted there had been 'clearly inappropriate behaviour’ by some of the other guests at the party in a French ski resort after the Mail on Sunday published photographs of Mr Burley at the event, where revellers allegedly made Nazi chants and toasted the Third Reich.
11/17 Jeremy Hunt
Mr Hunt admitted to sending a congratulatory text message to News Corp executive James Murdoch just hours before the minister was asked to oversee the firm's bid for BSkyB. Although Downing Street insisted that Mr Hunt had acted properly during the takeover, a Labour MP accused him in the house of deliberately misleading Parliament about his contact with News Corp over the takeover.
12/17 Brian Binley
The Tory MP for Northampton South, allegedly told a local businessmen ‘we are all totally corrupt’ talking about politicians at a drinks party during a taxpayer-funded trip to Malta.
13/17 Tim Yeo
Stood down as the chairman of the influential Energy and Climate Change committee in June 2013 amid allegations he was prepared to use his position to help business clients.
14/17 Chris Huhne
The former Energy Secretary was jailed for eight months in March 2013 for swapping penalty speeding points with ex-wife Vicky Pryce in an offence that the court heard had struck at the heart of the criminal justice system.
15/17 Patrick Mercer
Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip in May last year after he was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' apparently agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji for a pro-Fijian cross-party committee.
16/17 Michael Martin
Former Labour party MP Michael Martin became the first Commons Speaker to be forced out of office for more than 300 years following criticism of his handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009.
17/17 Jacqui Smith
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stood down in the cabinet reshuffle amid a flurry of controversy after the MPs expenses scandal revealed her husband Richard Timney, who also ran her constituency office, had watched two pay-per-view adult movies which had then, unknown to her, been subject to a claim for reimbursement. The ‘porn scandal’ not only saw the former Labour MP Ms Smith, who was the first female Home Secretary, eventually resign but also saw her lose her parliamentary seat in May 2010.
Both MPs will feature in Politicians For Hire – a Channel 4 Dispatches programme airing tonight at 8pm.Reuse content