If you were writing a parodic The Thick Of It-style comedy about an entitled, old Tory MP, you couldn’t do better than the real-life figure of Sir Geoffrey Cox QC MP. He even has that fruity Rumpole-like booming voice and demeanour, which we remember being deployed during the Brexit crisis – a gift to impressionists.
If you were the scriptwriter, you’d plonk him in a sunny island somewhere, while the rest of the country is cowering in lockdown – preferably a tax haven such as the British Virgin Islands. There you’d have him, and I’m pleading parodic poetic licence here, defending against allegations of corruption on the sun-kissed isle.
For background, he’d be out walking his pet mastiff, George, and there would be a script line about him trying to claim from the taxpayer 49 pence for a carton of milk, £2 for some tea bags and £4.99 on “weedkiller for space in front of the constituency office”. (All were rejected by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in 2016, by the way.)
You’d also give him a very large fee for doing his lawyering in the Leewards, a sum that isn’t incomprehensible in the way that the wealth Elon Musk is, but still big enough to trigger envy and resentment – say £400,000, plus VAT. (The VAT bit is essential.) Finally, he would release a pompous statement about him being a “senior and distinguished professional in his field”.
All you’d need then is Matt Berry in the role of Sir Geoffrey, Colin Firth as the frustrated chief whip trying to get Cox to say sorry, and Matt Lucas as Boris Johnson, and you’d have yourself a Bafta winner. But not a vote-winner.
Sir Geoffrey’s sojourn to the British Virgin Islands may turn out to be a bit of a “duck house moment”. You may remember that one of the most egregious cases during the MPs expenses’ scandal was when one backbencher put in a claim for £1,645 for a “floating duck island”, complete with miniature house, styled in the eighteenth century Dutch vernacular.
Sir Peter Viggers, a Conservative with a big garden, as well as a big ego and a big passion for the welfare of wildfowl, himself admitted he felt “ashamed and humiliated” by his “ridiculous and grave error of judgement”. As far as I could judge from his time on the Treasury Select Committee, he was a perfectly competent and conscientious politician, but his mania for mallards cost him his career.
Like Sir Geoffrey’s little venture, it was self-parody on a grand scale. Let’s just say these sort of episodes tend to make Tory MPs appear a little out of touch, and dear Sir Geoffrey, albeit a mere learned backbencher these days, a touch less credible as a tribune in Boris Johnson’s “people’s government”.
There is a growing social and political chasm between these old-school public school county Tories, like Cox and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the Red Wall boys and girls from ex-mining seats and depressed towns in the North and Midlands, many of whom speak little, if any, Latin.
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Like the sleaze era in John Major’s time and the MPs’ expenses scandal a decade ago, the problem for the Conservatives with the current sleaze story is that it just won’t go away. Thanks to the media rummaging through cuttings and the Commons register of members’ interests – a richly embroidered catalogue of self-indulgence – every day brings fresh revelations.
The Sunday Times was smart to notice the curiously close correlation between £3m in donations to the Tory party, the post of party treasurer and a seat in the House of Lords. But it’s all there, more or less, in plain sight, and there are hundreds of entries to go, fact-finding trips to riddle, expenses to query and self-serving lobbying activities to be challenged.
Sir Geoffrey’s finest hour came when he was speaking from the despatch box in one of the many debates in the Commons on Brexit. It was a bravura performance. Then the attorney general, Cox berated his fellow MPs for messing about with the legal consequences of Brexit: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground. You are legislators.”
True enough, but there are questions that he and too many of his colleagues still need to answer about their own behaviour. They have to stop trying to live on fantasy island.
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