Tory Sleaze Turns Out to Be a Problem for Boris Johnson
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Speaking at the Glasgow climate summit, Boris Johnson digressed from the topic at hand to note that Britain is “not remotely a corrupt country.” That of course made people stop and think. Well, is it?
That’s quite a feat, when you think about it. Amid a major global gathering on climate change, concerns over a winter health-care crisis, a rise in the terrorist threat level and alarming talk of war with Russia, the U.K. prime minister managed to keep the dominant conversation in the country on what is known as “Tory sleaze” for two whole weeks.
On Tuesday Johnson tried to draw a line under matters by announcing a plan to ban MPs from taking on outside consultancy work. But he left plenty of questions to be answered, and rules are only as good as their drafting. His efforts may amount to trying to drain the swamp with a straw.
The ban isn’t quite the same as an apology — saying “sorry” isn’t Johnson’s way — but it’s as close as the prime minister has come to acknowledging the damage of corruption allegations over the past couple of weeks. It began with the decision to back the Tory MP Owen Paterson against a cross-party standards committee that ruled him guilty of an “egregious” violation of Parliamentary lobbying rules related to 110,000 pounds ($147,675) of income he received annually from two firms. Outrage followed.
The government reversed itself and Paterson resigned, but that didn’t end matters. On Tuesday, officials had to endure a debate in which Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, called the government’s actions “misplaced, ill-judged and just plain wrong.” Ouch.
The danger for Johnson now is that three categories of misdeed are now all intermingled in the public mind, and inseparable from his own leadership.
The first sleaze category involves the prime minister himself and ranges from questions about how he funded a lavish redecoration of his living quarters to allegations that his relationship with American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri when he was London mayor broke the rules governing ethical conduct in public office. Much of this has been ignored by voters in the past, but an official determination that Johnson broke the rules would change matters.
The second category of sleaze concerns allegations of cronyism in the awarding of government contracts. On Tuesday, Politico published a list of 47 companies that won contracts to supply personal protective equipment via a “VIP system,” which in many cases meant being referred by ministers, MPs or officials, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Firms in the VIP lane were fast-tracked at the height of the pandemic without the usual checks and were 10 times more successful at winning contracts. A House of Commons report criticized the government for a lack of transparency and found that the priority lane didn’t include organizations such as the British Medical Association, which would have been well-placed to assess the credibility of suppliers.
Perhaps pandemic-era excesses can be chalked up to the fog of war. But the Paterson case, and the accretion of other issues, shows what looks like a pattern. That’s why MPs may now find themselves out of a (second) job.
Last week, the Labour Party published an analysis showing that some 50 Tory MPs and former ministers have been paid more than 1.7 million pounds for consultancy work so far this year. Conservative politician and well-known barrister Geoffrey Cox has been in the news a lot. He broke no rules in raking in over 1 million pounds advising tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands (where he has spent a great deal of time lately too), but it’s not a good look for a government that wants to hold on to seats in the poorer north of the country.
Johnson now suggests adopting two recommendations from a 2018 report by the committee on standards in public life. MPs’ outside earnings should be “within reasonable limits and should not prevent them from fully carrying out their range of duties,” he writes. MPs would also be banned from “paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser and consultant.”
Johnson’s rules carefully avoid imposing a salary cap on outside work, which would be deeply unpopular with some senior MPs — and might see Cox pack up his parliamentary office. It’s not clear how paid political consulting work will be defined. And it’s not clear what sort of outside commitments will be deemed too onerous and who will decide that.
Cox claimed that since he habitually works more than 70 hours a week, his constituents aren’t in the least disadvantaged by his long stints on the British Virgin Islands doing legal work. Those MPs who also serve as government ministers are already doing double duty so who’s to say a back-bencher with a keen legal mind can’t burn the midnight oil?
The argument in defense of second jobs has always been that Parliament benefits from MPs who have outside expertise and real-world contacts. That may be true, but clearly that freedom to engage in outside work has been abused. Cox is a formidable parliamentary presence when he’s there, but he’s hardly spoken up at all in the House since leaving the government benches.
Johnson’s past record would suggest this blows over. With an 80-seat majority, even the current polls showing a Labour lead may seem more like a slap on the wrist than a real electoral threat. The opposition has certainly failed to present itself as a viable alternative to the government so far.
Still, a background issue has moved into the foreground and the risks for Johnson are mounting. Like the inflationary pressures that were easy to dismiss as temporary at first, one small turn of the screw may prove too little when the problems don’t go away.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.