Boris Johnson backs ban on MPs’ lobbying work in wake of Westminster sleaze row

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Boris Johnson has set out plans to ban MPs from working as paid political consultants or lobbyists in the wake of Westminster’s sleaze row – but the prime minister is facing a backlash among Conservative ranks over his proposals.

In a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the prime minister said there was a need to ensure rules for MPs are “up to date, effective and appropriately rigorous”.

Mr Johnson said he believed the code of conduct for MPs should be updated in order to ensure their work “continues to command the confidence of the public”.

Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson leaves 10 Downing Street after a cabinet meeting, in central London, June 15, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS)

The prime minister’s intervention comes two weeks after he encouraged his Conservative MPs to save one of their colleagues, ex-cabinet minister Owen Paterson, from an immediate Commons suspension over a breach of lobbying rules.

A resulting outcry over the actions of Mr Johnson and Tory MPs’ prompted a swift government U-turn. But the prime minister has yet to stem further accusations of Westminster sleaze in fresh scrutiny of MPs’ outside earnings following the furore over Mr Paterson.

There have also been signs that the continuing sleaze row has caused political harm to both the prime minister and the Conservative Party, with Labour having pulled ahead of the Tories in recent opinion polls.

In his letter to Sir Lindsay on Tuesday, Mr Johnson gave his backing to suggested reforms by a 2018 report from the committee on standards in public life, which advises Downing Street on arrangements for upholding ethical standards of conduct among public servants.

The committee’s proposed reforms included updating the code of conduct to state that MPs’ outside earnings “should be within reasonable limits and should not prevent them from fully carrying out their range of duties”.

As part of the Westminster sleaze row, Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Cox has been criticised after he was revealed to have voted by proxy in the Commons while undertaking lucrative legal work in the Caribbean.

Mr Johnson also supported the report’s recommendation to update the code of conduct to ban MPs from “any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”.

The prime minister wrote in his letter: “Adopting these specific recommendations would ensure that MPs who are neglecting their duties to their constituents and prioritising outside interests would be investigated, and appropriately punished by the existing disciplinary authorities.

“They would also ban MPs from exploiting their positions by acting as a paid political consultants or lobbyists.”

Mr Paterson, who has since resigned as an MP, was found to have breached lobbying rules during his £110,000 per year consultancy work for Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a meat processor and distributor.

In his letter, Mr Johnson added it was “a matter of regret” that the Commons had “not yet taken forward these specific recommendations” of the 2018 report and said the government “would like to see them adopted as a matter of urgency”.

Analysis by Sam Coates, deputy political editor

It is a big political move from the prime minister – carried out seconds before Keir Starmer was about to do something similar. But will it work?

Boris Johnson has now said he favours a ban on MPs carrying out paid work “as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”. He also says any outside work must be within “reasonable limits”.

But how does anyone define such things? And who must sit in judgement to determine what side of these vague lines an MP’s conduct falls on?

Will the “reasonable limits” on outside activity that Mr Johnson proposes be judged by hours, or pay, or some other metric? Will the acceptability of a second job be judged on the type of organisation, or the type of role? Is payment in shares, rather than a salary, acceptable?

And will Mr Johnson’s requirement for cross-party consensus slow down the change being implemented?

Even if a cross-party consensus is arrived at for the definitions, will the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards get the discretion to be the judge on individual cases? Are MPs about to make Kathryn Stone the most powerful figure in Westminster?

Little wonder there is already a backlash led by the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs. Given there is so much at stake politically – and financially – we have not heard the final word on this.

He also set out his belief that changes to MPs’ code of conduct “must be done on the basis of a cross-party consensus” in the Commons.

There were signs that Mr Johnson was facing a backlash from among Tory MPs to his proposals.

A senior Conservative, summarising the reaction of colleagues to the prime minister’s proposals, told Sky News: “Were they really looking for a way of keeping a story going? It was largely dying down.”

They added that the “vagueness of what’s being proposed” was causing concern.

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks during a press conference outlining Labour's plan for improving politics ahead of Wednesday's Opposition Day debate. Picture date: Tuesday November 16, 2021.

The prime minister’s letter to Sir Lindsay was released just minutes before Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer spoke at a news conference to set out his party’s own plans in the wake of the Westminster sleaze scandal.

Sir Keir said: “I rather hope that all my press conferences are this successful, that whilst I’m making a demand of the prime minister, he concedes, caves in. And that’s a very significant victory for the Labour Party.”

On Tuesday night, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey was revealed to have quit his consultancy roles worth £78,000 per year.

A party spokesperson said: “Ed decided to end both of his consultancy contracts last week. He has always been clear that the earnings from the work he did advising on climate change issues are used to fund the care for his severely disabled son over his son’s lifetime.

“Ed has always and will always comply with all rules and standards on these matters.”

Labour had aimed to force a Commons vote on Wednesday, during an opposition day debate, on a motion to end MPs’ paid directorships and commercial consultancies.

The government will now seek to amend Labour’s motion to secure support for the prime minister’s proposals and set a deadline of the end of January for cross-party work to bring forward recommendations for updating MPs’ code of conduct.

Labour accused the government of “typical Tory dirty tricks” and accused Mr Johnson’s rhetoric of being “a long way from reality”.

Shadow leader of the House of Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, said: “We don’t need warm words from the Tories but concrete steps to clear up this mess made in Downing Street.

“Only Labour’s motion takes the action we need on dodgy second jobs. Conservative MPs should vote for it.”

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Questions arose about how far the recommendations supported by the prime minister would impact on MPs’ other work.

The 2018 report found that a “handful of MPs” held parliamentary advisory and consultancy roles, and that there was a “small number of cases… where the public and media reaction to outside interests of MPs suggest that reasonable limits… have been breached”.

Dr Hannah White, from the Institute for Government think-tank and who previously worked for the committee on standards in public life, said the “key” to the prime minister’s plans would be the definition of “paid political consultants or lobbyists”.

“Is a former minister who has knowledge of a policy area allowed to take an advisory role (as long as no paid advocacy) because that isn’t ‘just’ parliamentary strategy?” she asked.

“Will it be up to the parliamentary commissioner for standards to determine what ‘reasonable limits’ on outside activity means?

“To date MPs have argued its up to them to determine how they fulfil their role – so who can decide if they are fulfilling ‘their range of duties’?”

What are the sleaze claims facing Boris Johnson and the Conservatives?

What are the sleaze claims facing Boris Johnson and the Conservatives?

Those within the lobbying industry welcomed the prime minister’s plans.

Liam Herbert, of the Public Relations and Communications Association, said: “We strongly support the prime minister’s recommendations to parliament.

“These recommendations were made in 2018 and they must now be implemented. We have always said that MPs should not be legislators and lobbyists at the same time.

“The industry observes the highest ethical standards, and it is time that the parliamentary authorities meet these standards.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the government completed its U-turn in the row over Mr Paterson as MPs formally backed the findings against him.

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