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Led By Donkeys: What's the £10k-a-day sting that caught out Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng?

The former ministers have been left red-faced after being taped discussing what they would charge for a second job consulting with a fake firm.

Former cabinet members Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng are facing a backlash after being duped by a fake company into revealing how much they would charge per day for freelance consultancy.

A bogus overseas company, made up by campaign group Led By Donkeys, contacted around 20 MPs to ask whether they would work for a non-existent international advisory board of the fictional Hanseong Consulting.

In taped interviews, both Hancock and Kwarteng ask for payments of around £10,000 a day for their consulting work, which they appear to have intended to take on in addition to their full-time parliamentary roles.

The pair were left red-faced after the interview tapes were released by the campaign group, prompting a backlash from the opposition - with Labour's shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire calling for the MPs involved to lose the whip.

“Being an MP is a full-time job," she said. “Tory MPs should not be using their taxpayer funded offices to line their own pockets."

There is no accusation of wrongdoing - sitting MPs are permitted to have second jobs in addition to their role as an MP, provided they are not a minister.

Matt Hancock, Conservative MP, reacts outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London, Britain October 24, 2022. REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska
Matt Hancock said he would charge £10,000 a day for consulting work with the fake company. (Reuters)

However, the vast sums of money demanded by the former ministers, in addition to their willingness to work with unknown external companies, has prompted questions about whether the MPs were putting their own interests above those of their constituents - including from members of their own party.

Conservative MP Michael Gove said that while the rules had been followed, "the jury here is the constituency", adding in an interview with the BBC's Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg show: "I think they're both talented people with a lot to offer in the future, but ultimately they will have to answer for the decisions that they've taken."

The revelation has prompted Labour to renew its calls for new rules on MPs having second jobs. Such a change would hit Conservative MPs the hardest - analysis from Sky News and Tortoise at the beginning of the year found Tory MPs had earned £15.2 million from second jobs since 2019, Labour MPs had earned £1.2 million, and Liberal Democrats £171,000.

Shadow minister Lucy Powell said: "I was pretty appalled and sickened by those revelations. That's why we'll be redoubling our efforts to try and get second jobs banned for MPs."

Led By Donkeys sting: Latest updates

What is Led By Donkeys?

The anti-Brexit campaign group formed in 2018 was set up by activists Ben Stewart, James Sadri, Oliver Knowles and Will Rose - all of whom were involved with environmental group Greenpeace at one time but set up Led By Donkeys as a freelance exercise after becoming enraged by what they told The Guardian were Brexit "lies, lunacy and hypocrisy".

Their initial campaign involved plastering a 2015 tweet by David Cameron about stability on a huge billboard - quickly garnering national attention, despite the group's founders being anonymous at the time. They have since revealed their identity and run the organisation using public donations.

The group has since been involved in various stunts and billboards, perhaps most notably using a spoof Line of Duty film to highlight COVID rule-breaking by Boris Johnson and other staff at No 10.

More recently four people were arrested after Led By Donkeys painted a Ukrainian flag on the road outside the Russian Embassy in London.

The group claimed responsibility for the 500 square metre blue and yellow flag, saying they did it to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Protest group 'Led by Donkeys' spread paint in the colours of the Ukrainian flag on a road, ahead of the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside the Russian Embassy in London, Britain February 23, 2023. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Protest group 'Led by Donkeys' spread paint in the colours of the Ukrainian flag on a road outside the Russian Embassy in February 2023. (Reuters)

What is the 'Hanseong Consulting' sting?

Led By Donkeys has said it posed as an international company called Hanseong Consulting in order to find out how much MPs would charge for freelance work and whether they would be interested in taking on additional consulting work.

Of the 20 members who were contacted (16 Conservative MPs, two Labour MPs and two Liberal Democrats), Led By Donkeys claims that five Conservative MPs progressed to the "interview" stage: Matt Hancock, Kwasi Kwarteng, former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson, former minister Stephen Hammond and Sir Graham Brady.

Led By Donkeys said Williamson did not want to progress with discussions, and no information has yet been released on whether Hammond shared a fee (or refusal) during the sting.

Brady said he was "thinking something like £60,000 as an annual rate" for assisting the firm, according to the video, while footage showed Kwarteng said: "I would say as an MP, obviously I don’t need to earn a king’s ransom.

"But I wouldn’t do anything less than for about 10,000 dollars a month."

When asked by the fake company whether he had a day rate, Hancock replied on the video: "I do, yes. It is 10,000 sterling."

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng adjusts his glasses during Britain's Conservative Party's annual conference in Birmingham, Britain, October 3, 2022. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Kwasi Kwarteng quoted thousands of pounds to take on work outside his role as an MP consulting for a fake firm. (Reuters)

What have the MPs said in response?

The MPs involved in the sting have defended the discussions they had with the fake company. One, Sir Graham Brady, said: “Having decided to leave the Commons at the next election, I have received a number of approaches regarding future opportunities.

“I did have an exploratory discussion with someone purporting to be recruiting an international advisory board for a South Korean investment house.

“I made it clear that any arrangement would have to be completely transparent and that whilst a Member of Parliament, I would only act within the terms of the Code of Conduct.

“I also made it clear that whilst I could be flexible in attending international meetings in person, this would be subject to some important votes or commitments in Westminster.”

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock's spokesman suggested that rather than the MP being at fault, the campaign group involved in the sting had acted inappropriately.

“The accusation appears to be that Matt acted entirely properly and within the rules, which had just been unanimously adopted by Parliament," the spokesperson told PA.

“It’s completely untrue to suggest any wrongdoing and therefore absurd to bring Mr Hancock into this story through the illegal publication of a private conversation.

“All the video shows is Matt acting completely properly.”

Matt Hancock leaves the Palace of Westminster in London, Britain December 2, 2022. REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska
Matt Hancock's spokesperson suggested the campaign group was at fault. (Reuters)