UK trade minister Conor Burns resigns over loan threats

When “three houses” Robert Jenrick was not required to resign over travelling to his second home, Owl thought this Government was without shame.

A close ally of Boris Johnson has resigned as a minister after being found to have used his position to try to intimidate a member of the public.

Rajeev Syal www.theguardian.com

The international trade minister, Conor Burns, was found by the standards committee to have made a series of veiled threats while attempting to intervene in his father’s dispute over a loan.

The committee recommended a suspension from parliament over multiple breaches of the MPs’ code before No 10 announced his resignation. A Downing Street spokesman said Burns had resigned after the committee’s report.

The commissioner for standards received a complaint from a member of the public connected to a firm with which Burns’s father was in dispute over the repayment of a loan. The complaint centred on a letter sent by Burns, which claimed his father had made extensive attempts over a period of years to reach a settlement on repayment of that loan.

In the letter, written in February 2019 on House of Commons notepaper, Burns stated he was writing on his father’s behalf enclosing an earlier letter sent by his father to the company to which, he stated, no response had been received.

“I am acutely aware that my role in the public eye could well attract interest especially if I were to use parliamentary privilege to raise the case (on which I have taken advice from the house authorities),” Burns wrote.

The MP suggested the complainant, a former senior civil servant whose name was redacted from House of Commons documents, could avoid having him raise the case in the Commons by securing the payment of the loan to his father.

Burns noted the complainant’s “high-profile role” outside the company “could well add to that attention”. By raising the case during parliamentary proceedings, Burns’s words would have been protected from a legal challenge by parliamentary privilege.

When confronted by Kathryn Stone, the commissioner for standards, Burns said he had not sought formal advice. Stone said his behaviour “gives fuel to the belief that members are able and willing to use the privileges accorded them by their membership of the house to benefit their own personal interests”.

“The content of the letter suggests the use of the principal emblem of the house was more deliberate than accidental. And, as I explained in my letter to Mr Burns of 11 June 2019, his reference to having sought advice about privilege from the house authorities was misleading,” Stone wrote.

The report released by the standards committee found that he had also misused parliamentary-headed notepaper. It accused Burns of behaving “disrespectfully” during the investigation and of claiming he had not received a memo from Stone over several months.

The cross-party committee recommended he should apologise in writing to the Commons and to the individual concerned – a recommendation that will need to be signed off by the Commons.

“The right of members of parliament to speak in the chamber without fear or favour is essential to parliament’s ability to scrutinise the executive and to tackle social abuses, particularly if the latter are committed by the rich and powerful who might use the threat of defamation proceedings to deter legitimate criticism.

“Precisely because parliamentary privilege is so important, it is essential to maintaining public respect for parliament that the protection afforded by privilege should not be abused by a member in the pursuit of their purely private and personal interests,” the report said.

Burns, 47, was made a trade minister in July when Johnson became Conservative leader and was a key member of his campaign team. He was elected to represent Bournemouth West in 2010 and defended his seat in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

He served as parliamentary private secretary to Johnson when he was foreign secretary but resigned from the post in July 2018.

Burns expressed his regret in a tweet on Monday. “With deep regret I have decided to resign as Minister of State for International Trade. @BorisJohnson will continue to have my wholehearted support from the backbenches,” he said.

In a separate development, another minister at the Department for International Trade, Greg Hands, was ordered on Monday to apologise for misusing parliamentary stationery to send a letter to thousands of constituents.

In October 2019, the Chelsea and Fulham MP had told the commissioner he was willing to publicly acknowledge he had breached the rules, apologise and reimburse the £4,865 costs. But with the election looming, Hands changed his mind.

The committee said: “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Hands may well have been motivated by a desire to avoid the embarrassment of having to make a public apology for breaking parliamentary rules during a general election campaign.”