Tory sleaze will not be enough to hand Labour the next election

Boris Johnson announced his support for curbs on MPs’ second jobs – a reminder that it’s hard for any opposition to make the political weather

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 17 November 2021 14:27
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Trade Secretary: 15 hours a week of work outside of parliament is reasonable

Keir Starmer told Labour MPs at their private weekly meeting on Monday night that while the sleaze allegations had eroded the Conservatives’ support, it would not win his party the next general election.

Less than 24 hours later, he was proved right: in a cynically timed but effective move, Boris Johnson lobbed a rock into a Starmer press conference by announcing his support for curbs on MPs’ second jobs. Starmer had laid a clever trap for the prime minister; he told journalists Johnson had to choose between accepting Labour’s proposals or whipping his MPs against a ban on MPs acting as consultants in a Commons vote later today. But characteristically, Johnson (whom David Cameron once described as a “greased piglet”) wriggled out of the trap by accepting such a ban.

Starmer deserves credit; if Labour had not forced a vote on the issue, Johnson would probably not have backed down. Yet Johnson is more likely to get the credit from the public. That’s the difference between government and opposition, and a reminder that it’s hard for any opposition to make the political weather.

Starmer was temporarily knocked off his stride when his deputy, Angela Rayner, told him during his press conference that Johnson had written to the Commons speaker. But the Labour leader recovered quickly to claim what he called a “significant victory.”

Johnson is proposing a ban on MPs doing paid work as a “parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”, while any outside work should be within “reasonable limits” and not prevent them fully carrying out their duties as an MP. Tory sources claim this would go further than Labour. Not true. It goes further than what Starmer is proposing in today’s debate, but he made clear yesterday he wants almost all second jobs to end, which goes much further than Johnson.

Indeed, the prime minister should go much further, notably by ensuring tougher policing of ministerial behaviour and ex-ministers taking up business appointments. But he probably won’t. His surprise U-turn on second jobs is not about improving the image of parliament in voters’ eyes; it’s about improving the image of Boris Johnson in voters’ eyes.

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But the greased piglet is not totally free yet. He has provoked a backlash from Tory MPs furious they were not consulted about his clampdown. About 30 work as parliamentary consultants and are worried they might lose the income on which they depend on top of their £82,000-a-year MP’s salary. There are warnings that former ministers will quit the Commons after leaving the government and that high calibre professionals (like a future Starmer) will be deterred from entering politics if they cannot keep up some outside work.

The anger towards Johnson on the Tory benches is palpable. “He said he wouldn’t give in to the media, but that’s what he has done, without thinking it through,” groaned one long-serving Tory. Some MPs will try to get round the new rules – perhaps by saying they are writing a commentary on the economy or political scene for an outside employer – and it’s far from clear how tough the regulations will be.

The Tory MPs’ dismay is even greater because they know parliament would not even be having this discussion if Johnson had not foolishly tried to save Owen Paterson’s skin. He felt compelled by the public backlash, illustrated by the Tories losing their opinion poll lead, to clear up the mess of his own making. It’s safe to say that without that, the hidden merits of the sleaze watchdog’s 2018 report would have remained hidden.

Ironically, Johnson will likely strengthen the very system – based on the standards committee of MPs and lay members and the parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone – he wanted to scrap only two weeks ago. It may fall to them to decide where to draw the line on second jobs and whether an MP is spending too much time on one. That would deepen the anxiety of Tory MPs, who have convinced themselves the current system is loaded against them.

Many new generation Tory MPs in the north and Midlands will welcome the crackdown. But Johnson made a calculated decision to prioritise what the public – rather than his old guard MPs – think of him. He was probably right to assess the damage of the sleaze allegations as serious. Despite his retreat, some scars may be permanent. Lost trust is hard to win back; this could still be the moment when some 2019 Tory voters stop giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Shrugging off future controversies with “it’s just Boris” might become harder.

However, this episode also shows how hard it is for Starmer to make headway. Lesson for Labour: Johnson will be shameless enough to steal its best policies before the next election.

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