Don’t pretend MPs with second jobs are employed for their strategic genius

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Philip Collins  (Daniel Hambury)
Philip Collins (Daniel Hambury)

It is a sad irony that the death of one of the nicest Conservative MPs in the country, James Brokenshire, will be the first electoral test of whether the Tories are becoming once again the nasty party. On December 2, the electors of Old Bexley and Sidcup will vote in a by-election in a safe Tory seat on the south-eastern edge of London. During his visit to Sidcup on Friday, Boris Johnson was forced to defend the right of MPs to have second jobs because the Tory candidate Louie French, remarkably, refused to rule out continuing to work as a portfolio manager should he become the local MP.

The Labour Party this week recorded its first poll leads since January and that change is owed, at least in part, to a reaction about who MPs should be working for. The former Attorney General and the current MP for Torridge and West Devon, Sir Geoffrey Cox, was revealed to have made a fortune from his legal work in the British Virgin Islands, when he could have been focusing his attention wholly on the good people of West Devon.

The rules about who MPs can be employed by remain rather lax and, at the moment, more than a quarter of Tory MPs have another job.

The MPs with lucrative and time-consuming occupations outside politics tend to be those with the largest majorities. Anyone nursing a marginal constituency actually has political work to attend to, which is why it is so self-serving of Sir Geoffrey to argue that his voters in West Devon should be the judges of his conduct.

The Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the same about the £150,000 he took as an adviser to JP Morgan. It may well be, in fact, that plenty of Sir Geoffrey and Javid’s constituents think what they are doing is beyond the pale. Besides, what kind of court is it in which conduct is decided by popular acclamation rather than legal process?

It is every bit as implausible to pretend, as Mr Javid also did, that other jobs enable MPs to stay in touch with the world beyond Westminster. That is what being a constituency MP is meant to do. And how remarkable that so many of the worlds they want to stay in touch with are in banking, the law and professional services. I don’t notice many Tory MPs wanting “to stay in touch with” the worlds of social work, bus driving or window cleaning. As Ronnie Barker once said to Ronnie Corbett: “If I was as rich as Rockefeller, I’d be richer than Rockefeller. I’d do a spot of window cleaning on the side.” Tory MPs do the same in hedge funds.

In Sidcup, Johnson stressed that extra-parliamentary work had a great value, yet it is hard to see what public value was added by the Prime Minister trying to sneak away to write his book on Shakespeare while the nation struggled with the pandemic. It would be absurd in any case to pretend that moonlighting MPs are all employed for their sheer strategic genius. It is obvious that most of them get the gig because they are close to power and the businesses want the access.

The committee on standards in public life recommended three years ago that MPs should not be paid as consultants, advisers and strategists. The payment of a salary of £82,000 is granted for sitting in the legislature and there should be no extra payment for representing a private interest in that public body. The standards committee of parliament is currently considering a ban on strategic advice of this kind.

It is likely that the Tories survive the test in Old Bexley and Sidcup — James Brokenshire left behind a majority of 19,000. But there is no doubt that the association of the Tory party with dubious money — its defence of Owen Paterson who had clearly broken parliamentary rules on lobbying and the allegation that seats in the Lords are priced at about £3 million — are changing the mood in politics.

Johnson is, politically speaking, a good-time boy. He thrives on a mood of optimism. The polls have not yet settled on a significant Labour lead and the opposition still has a lot to do before it convinces the nation. But being behind does not suit Johnson and neither does being on the defensive.

The accusations that he thinks he is above the law and that he never keeps a promise are toxic precisely because they are true.

Politics has entered a new phase and we are about to watch the Tory party suddenly under pressure.

What do you think will happen in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election? Let us know in the comments below.

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