The differences in the two rebuttals were noticeable. Jack Straw ruefully acknowledged that having once castigated other Labour MPs for being “suckered” by such a “sting”, he was “mortified” after “falling into the skilful trap” set by the undercover journalists, clouding what should have been his pleasantly “valedictory” last few weeks in the Commons.
This may have been designed to evoke sympathy from MPs on the Standards Committee who could ultimately decide his fate. And he had only been discussing life after being an MP. (Even though he had also suggested he might be able to “help you more” if he were elevated to the Lords.)
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was more belligerent. Yes, he had said something “silly” and out of “context” potentially “misleading”, about being “self-employed”. But he had been talking about his outside earnings, not the MPs’ salary of £67,000 a year – one it would be “unrealistic” to believe could attract those of a “business or professional” background to Parliament.
The television company had acknowledged he wasn’t offering “privileged” information and this had “absolutely nothing” to do with his Intelligence and Security Committee chairmanship. The allegations were “completely unfounded and I am going to fight them with all my strength”. And so, far from being “embarrassed”, he was “hugely irritated and angry”.
But these differences were stylistic. When it came to the suspension of their parliamentary party membership, it seems Straw jumped while Rifkind was pushed. But both insisted in their determined round of the studios that they had done nothing wrong. Both are lawyers, though Rifkind is a QC and Straw isn’t. Which may be why Rifkind was more precise and combative, while Straw was humbler (even if he had been much less humble when interviewed undercover). Both had scrupulously registered their outside interests. And both referred themselves to the Standards Commissioner and the MPs, supposedly good and true, to whom he reports.
But you wondered how these elder statesmen were “suckered” into boasting about the contacts and skills that might be useful to a prospective commercial client, without questioning whether this was indeed a “sting” of the kind already executed with almost monotonous regularity.
Rifkind, at least by implication, didn’t even accept that, claiming to the BBC’s John Humphrys that anything he had told the undercover journalists he would have been willing to say in a real interview. (Except presumably the “silly” remark which even the most supine interviewer, something Humphrys certainly isn’t, would have challenged.)
But it’s their “falling into the trap” that will dismay many colleagues, since it revives the toxic issue of MPs and money. Rifkind correctly pointed out that some 200 MPs have outside business interests. If the investigations find that the two men acted within the rules, the voters may want the rules to be changed. Again.
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