The word “sleaze” summed up a series of scandals that afflicted John Major’s government, allowing journalists to link financial corruption with personal infidelity. Now, something similar is happening to Boris Johnson’s government. This time, the emphasis is more on financial impropriety, as Owen Paterson, the Conservative former cabinet minister, has resigned as an MP after being found to have engaged in paid lobbying.
But the prime minister’s private life has also been dragged into the story, with new revelations over the weekend from Jennifer Arcuri, his lover when he was mayor of London, who claims he asked her how he could help her “as you make your career”.
Since the prime minister tried to block Paterson’s punishment and then backtracked when he realised the scale of the outcry, the headlines have been filled with stories about MPs’ second jobs and potential conflicts of interest in government.
It turned out that Sir Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general, has been earning large sums of money as a barrister based in the Caribbean, claiming his Torridge and West Devon constituents didn’t mind. The Metropolitan Police turned down a request from a Scottish National Party MP that it should investigate whether peerages had been sold for Tory party donations. And a string of Tory MPs have attracted attention for being paid by companies that won public sector contracts.
That has revived interest in the way in which emergency coronavirus contracts were awarded, while another group of Tory MPs seem to have advocated policies in parliament without declaring their interest in companies that might benefit.
The opposition has not escaped the storm, with Keir Starmer’s declarations of payments for legal work before he became leader coming under scrutiny, and questions asked about why he even thought about taking a consultancy role of the kind that the Labour Party wants to ban. Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, has two advisory roles with a law firm and an energy company, which he defends as the money is used to benefit his disabled son.
The whole furore started because Paterson and many of his allies among Tory MPs felt that the system for enforcing standards rules on MPs was flawed, mainly because it did not allow MPs any further right of appeal after Kathryn Stone, the standards commissioner, and the standards committee, made up half of MPs and half non-MPs, had decided against them. (Except, of course, for an appeal to the whole House of Commons, which has to approve or change the committee’s decision, which is where the trouble started in Paterson’s case.)
Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the standards committee, has asked a “senior judicial figure” to advise on whether the system ought to be changed. Meanwhile, the Labour Party wants to ban MPs from taking consultancy jobs and paid directorships – while allowing them to carry on being doctors and other jobs of which public opinion approves.
If you have questions about ethical standards in public life, I will be on hand on Tuesday lunchtime to answer as many as I can. You can ask me anything about the prime minister’s sex life, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll give much of an answer – I’ll try to focus on questions about how to protect the public interest when MPs take second jobs or former ministers take subsequent ones.
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