A crackdown on MPs’ second jobs has moved a step closer as Boris Johnson warned members of parliament that they must be “visible to” their constituents, but refused to intervene in the Geoffrey Cox controversy.
As anger mounted over the behaviour of the former attorney general – who worked and voted from the Caribbean during lockdown – the Commons speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, warned of parliament being seen as a “dictatorship” if the government didn’t get its house in order over allegations of “sleaze”.
The prime minister declined to criticise or take action against Sir Geoffrey, but did make clear that serving constituents had to be the “primary job” of any MP who was moonlighting to top up his or her salary.
“They should be visible in their constituencies and available to help constituents with their constituency matters,” the PM’s spokesperson said. “If they’re not doing that, they’re not doing their job, and will be rightly judged on that by their constituents.”
The Commons standards committee then signalled its intention to make significant changes by announcing it was commissioning a senior judge to offer advice, ahead of a pre-Christmas report.
It is expected to recommend, as a minimum, a ban on MPs having second jobs as consultants and advisers – a landmark reform that Mr Johnson will then be under huge pressure to back.
His spokesperson left open that option by saying that the prime minister was only opposed to “an outright ban” on outside jobs, declining to say what that meant.
Chris Bryant, the chair of the standards committee, said: “As part of our review of the code of conduct and its operation, we have decided today we will be commissioning a senior judicial figure to advise us on possible changes to the process.”
Meanwhile, Scotland Yard said it was formally considering a call to investigate allegations that peerages have effectively been sold to major Tory donors and party treasurers.
Sir Geoffrey is at the centre of the sleaze row after spending several weeks in the British Virgin Islands in April and May this year, 4,000 miles away from his Devon constituency. He voted by proxy, exploiting rules brought in to ensure that MPs were not excluded because of having to isolate in relation to Covid, or because of medical conditions.
Just as controversially, he earned more than £150,000 as a lawyer advising the Caribbean tax haven over corruption charges brought by the Foreign Office. The job contributed to more than £1m in legal fees the QC had earned since the start of 2020 – working more than 20 hours a week – on top of his £81,932 salary as an MP.
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour Party chair, demanded an investigation into Sir Geoffrey’s activities, calling the issue “a question of leadership” for the prime minister.
But the PM’s spokesperson insisted the rules were set by the Commons – not by No 10 – and refused to say whether or not voting from the Caribbean was “appropriate”, saying that they were unable to comment on individual MPs. There is no suggestion that the barrister broke any Commons rules.
Downing Street did bow to pressure to reverse the prime minister’s attempt to fix Commons rules and allow the disgraced Owen Paterson to be censured.
However, ministers ducked calls to allow a vote to scrap a proposed new Tory-dominated standards committee – despite demands that it be held before a Commons recess was due to begin tonight.
Senior MPs pointed out that, despite the prime minister’s U-turn over the Paterson scandal, last week’s controversy meant the former cabinet minister’s conduct had not been recognised as wrong.
In her letter to Mr Johnson about Sir Geoffrey, Ms Dodds wrote: “It appears that your former attorney general is profiting from advising an administration accused of corruption and tax avoidance. Sir Geoffrey’s behaviour means it looks like he’d rather get a tax haven off the hook than represent the interests of his constituents.”
And when asked in an interview with Times Radio if the damage to parliament could become irreparable, the speaker warned: “If we haven’t got democracy, we’re a dictatorship. And that’s one thing that we are not going to become.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies