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STEPHEN GLOVER: Disaster awaits for Boris Johnson

STEPHEN GLOVER: If Boris Johnson thinks he can extricate his party from sleaze with easy charm, disaster awaits

The Tories are in the grip of a crisis of sleaze. Yet the Prime Minister seems not to have noticed. Or is it that he doesn’t care?

The latest episode in this unedifying saga concerns Sir Geoffrey Cox, a former Conservative Attorney General. It would be hard to think of actions more damaging to his party than the crop of revelations published in yesterday’s and today’s Mail.

Sir Geoffrey has long been one of the highest earners in the Commons. Over the years he has trousered enormous amounts from his work as a barrister, raising eyebrows even on his own benches.

In the past year alone he was paid more than £1 million for outside legal work on top of his £82,000 salary as a backbencher. If the size of his extra earnings is stunning, the manner in which he made some of them is even more mind-boggling.

The Tories are in the grip of a crisis of sleaze. Yet the Prime Minister seems not to have noticed. Or is it that he doesn’t care?

Corruption

During April and May last year, Sir Geoffrey is believed to have been holed up 4,000 miles away in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax haven. There he proffered expensive legal advice to the territory’s government, which has been accused of corruption.

In particular, the Foreign Office has launched an inquiry to establish whether there is evidence of ‘corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty that has taken place in public office in recent years’. Let’s just say that this former officer of the Crown wasn’t obviously working in the interests of Her Majesty’s Government while he was abroad.

His behaviour was entirely legal — and he was paid stupendously well. Sir Geoffrey — who is both rotund and orotund, and looks as though he might have wandered out of the Edwardian era — pocketed £156,916.08 for 140 hours’ work. That amounts to £1,121 an hour.

As a result, the good folk of Torridge and West Devon, emerging as they were from the tribulations of lockdown, were deprived of his services for several weeks, though he is said to have kept in touch via Zoom. They may have grown used to his absences as he is so often engaged in highly paid legal work.

It could hardly look worse. A tax haven. A dodgy government at odds with our own. Vast sums of money paid to a sitting MP. A prolonged sojourn close to sun-kissed beaches while his neglected constituents cope with Covid. Sir Geoffrey may be a fine man, but he would seem to personify what many detest most about the Tories.

Oh — I nearly forgot. Despite his vast earnings, he didn’t scruple to claim £629 for an Apple iPad plus £419 for accessories from the taxpayer so that he could work while travelling. He may not have broken any rules, but here is a man not overburdened with a sense of shame.

The latest episode in this unedifying saga concerns Sir Geoffrey Cox, a former Conservative Attorney General. It would be hard to think of actions more damaging to his party than the crop of revelations published in the Daily Mail

Should MPs be allowed second jobs? Sir Geoffrey is only the most egregious example. Some 200 out of 650 MPs have received payments in addition to their parliamentary salary in the past year, but in many cases these are tiny, sometimes as little as £50. A much smaller number of MPs have significant earnings, most of whom are Tories.

Theresa May notched up more than £750,000 from speaking engagements, usually given remotely, between April 2020 and May 2021. Perhaps that is uncontroversial, since all ex-prime ministers do the same, though why anyone would want to fork out £11,700 an hour to listen to her making virtual speeches is a mystery.

Former Tory ministers with lucrative consultancies greater than their parliamentary salaries include Andrew Mitchell (£182,000 a year), Julian Smith (£144,000) and Mark Garnier (£90,000).

Among Labour MPs making substantial sums are David Lammy, who was paid £140,000 over three years for speeches and media appearances. Even the party’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has banked £25,934 in legal fees in the past year for work he did before becoming Labour leader.

One objection to MPs earning large sums from beady-eyed businesses is that they may be tempted to bend the rules in service of their financial masters. Large firms may expect some sort of return if they pay politicians whopping amounts.

That is what happened to Owen Paterson, who was in receipt of more than £100,000 a year from two companies, and broke parliamentary rules by lobbying, though he continues to deny any infringement. It was his refusal to accept a relatively minor punishment that precipitated the current crisis for the Tories.

A second objection is that MPs who spend too much time working for outside interests risk ignoring the Commons and neglecting their constituents’ problems. Since February 2020, Sir Geoffrey Cox has spent ten days in court, either in person or remotely, on behalf of the British Virgin Islands government. During the same period he has spoken just once in the chamber.

Favours

Compare that lamentable record with that of Sir David Amess, the Tory MP recently murdered at his constituency surgery. His lifelong focus was on his responsibilities as an MP, and he showed how much influence a committed and hard-working parliamentarian can have. There are many others like him across all parties.

I believe there is a respectable argument for MPs having second jobs, provided these do not distract them from their duties or entail lobbying on behalf of self-interested companies. Outside work can broaden the mind, and some MPs, especially those who enter Parliament at a young age, have too narrow an experience of life.

But there must be recognised limits, and someone in authority needs to draw a line. That must ultimately come from the top. For this to happen — for Sir Geoffrey Cox and other miscreants to accept that their conduct isn’t acceptable — Boris Johnson must demonstrate a greater awareness.

Alas, he appears unwilling or unable to do so. He has a cavalier attitude towards his own conduct, repeatedly failing to register gifts or favours. He has, for example, refused to declare in the register of MPs’ interests a free holiday which he has just enjoyed in the luxurious Spanish villa belonging to the Goldsmith family.

The Mail reports today that Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, who earned more than £250,000 from a second job with a mining company, has used his role as the PM’s trade envoy to Mongolia to boost his links with the industry.

Apologise

Why? Few would begrudge him a few days in a lovely house after all his hard work. It is the secrecy which grates. Boris seems to regard such matters as purely his private concern. But rules are not a private matter.

Similarly, his refusal to apologise for the idiocies of last week — proposing to tear up the rules which had ensnared Mr Paterson, and then reversing the policy — gives the impression of a Prime Minister who doesn’t feel bound by standards that constrain lesser mortals.

He even avoided Monday afternoon’s emergency debate about the imbroglio he had whipped up, giving the excuse that he was otherwise engaged. Yet he was back at London’s King’s Cross at 4.41pm, nearly two hours before the debate ended. It was careless and high-handed not to attend.

Meanwhile, instances of alleged sleaze continue to mount up. The Mail reports today that Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, who earned more than £250,000 from a second job with a mining company, has used his role as the PM’s trade envoy to Mongolia to boost his links with the industry.

Throughout his life Boris Johnson has escaped numerous personal scrapes and controversies. If he thinks he can extricate a Tory Party engulfed in sleaze with the same easy charm and obfuscation, I see only disaster ahead.

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