Johnson Faces U.K. Tory Pushback Over Paid Consultancy Ban
Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces simmering unrest in his ruling Conservative Party over his proposal to ban U.K. members of Parliament from holding second jobs as political consultants.
Johnson announced his plan on Tuesday to try to end the intense criticism hurled at the government over his botched attempt to protect a former Tory minister found guilty of paid lobbying, and to prevent the main opposition Labour Party from boxing him into corner on the issue in Parliament.
But within hours the pushback from Johnson’s own side was gathering momentum. The immediate risk for the prime minister is that some Tory MPs will seek to embarrass him when his proposal is put to an initial vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
They also have a chance to voice their opposition at a meeting of rank-and-file Conservative MPs later Wednesday, which the prime minister is due to attend.
Johnson is trying to draw a line under a turbulent period in British politics even by the standards of his own controversial career. But he’s still struggling to contain the hostility he unleashed when he tried to prevent the suspension of his friend Owen Paterson, which even his predecessor Theresa May described on Tuesday as “ill-judged and just plain wrong.”
During a heated exchange with opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson was again forced to defend his government’s record on corruption, arguing that the U.K. is “one of the cleanest democracies in the world and people should be proud of that.”
Johnson’s proposal to overhaul rules on standards is part of his attempt to move on from the crisis. Yet while it would not prevent MPs from taking paid directorships or acting as consultants in non-political roles, some Tories criticized Johnson’s move as a knee-jerk reaction to the political pressure.
Others focused on another part of Johnson’s plan, to place “reasonable limits” on the amount of time MPs can spend on their outside interests. The implication is that Parliament’s watchdog on MP standards could be the arbiter in what activities constitute a breach of the new rules.
That is a no-go for many Tories, given commissioner Kathryn Stone’s role in the current crisis. It was her investigation into Paterson’s lobbying activity that ultimately led to him facing a suspension from Parliament, and Johnson’s failed effort to prevent it. He later resigned as an MP.
Stone came under sustained Tory pressure to resign including from Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who later apologized for his comments.
Based on comments in a private Tory Whatsapp chat group on Wednesday, there remains considerable opposition to Stone retaining too much power in deciding standards cases.
Kevin Hollinrake said the plan would make MPs subordinate to an unelected official, while Marcus Fysh warned that decisions on what is acceptable would be in the hands of Stone or any successor, who he said could make things up as they go along.
Jackie Doyle-Price called for rules to be left unchanged, while Tory MP Nigel Mills said the way Johnson worded his proposal meant the plan could either prevent so little as to be effectively pointless, or prevent just about every outside activity -- with MPs facing retrospective punishment.
Still, other Tory MPs welcomed the debate on second jobs that will follow Wednesday’s vote if Johnson’s proposal is passed.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the House of Commons defense committee, told Times Radio that a distinction should be drawn on jobs with public service, such as MPs serving in the armed forces or as doctors.
“If you want to be a barrister, leave Parliament,” he said. “Allow somebody else to represent your constituency, and go and be a barrister.”
That closely resembles the position of Labour, who tried to heap more pressure on the Tories during Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. After Johnson again refused to apologize for his actions over Paterson, Starmer called him a “coward, not a leader” -- though he later partially retracted the jibe to comply with Parliament’s rules on acceptable language.
Later Wednesday, Johnson faces the Parliament’s powerful liaison committee, which will almost certainly quiz him over his handling of the Paterson case.
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