Boris Johnson faces a confrontation with his backbenchers today as he pushes for MPs to be banned from taking on second jobs as consultants.
Steven Swinford,Henry Zeffman, www.thetimes.co.uk
The prime minister gave in yesterday to pressure over sleaze by proposing that MPs be barred from acting as paid political consultants. He also called for a limit on the amount of time MPs can spend on outside interests.
He will push his plans to a vote in the Commons today in an attempt to outflank Labour. The move represents a significant shift in Johnson’s position a fortnight after his botched attempt to block the suspension of Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister.
There was a backlash yesterday from Tory MPs with outside interests, who accused him of “capitulation”. One said: “It’s pouring petrol on to the flames. He’s caved to the left. Now if you have a consultancy it will be assumed you’re evil.”
Another MP said that Johnson announced the plans because he was concerned about being embarrassed during an appearance before the liaison committee of MPs this afternoon. “There’s a lot of unease. It’s the lurching, the U-turning, the lack of consultation.”
However, the proposals do not bar MPs from taking paid directorships or acting as consultants in non-political roles. Many of the 29 Tory MPs who act as consultants believe that they will be able to continue working because their second jobs are unrelated to parliament.
There was more concern on the back benches about plans to place “reasonable limits” on outside work by MPs to ensure they are focused on their constituents. “It looks very odd,” one senior Tory MP said. “How do you determine how much time people should be spending on something? How do you arbitrate on that? How do you define parliamentary consultancy?”
In a letter to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, Johnson identified two recommendations from a 2018 report by the committee on standards in public life for inclusion in an updated code of conduct for MPs. One of the new provisions would be that “any outside activity undertaken by an MP, whether remunerated or unremunerated, should be within reasonable limits and should not prevent them from fully carrying out their range of duties”.
The move follows criticism of Sir Geoffrey Cox, a former attorney-general, who voted in parliament from the Caribbean while advising the government of the British Virgin Islands in a case brought by the British government.
The other would state that “MPs should not accept any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant, for example, advising on parliamentary affairs or on how to influence parliament and its members”.
Johnson published his letter moments before Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, began a speech about his proposals to ban most outside earnings for MPs.
The government’s amendment calls for “cross-party work” to “bring forward recommendations” on changes in line with Johnson’s ideas by the end of January. Unlike Labour’s motion, it does not specify that that work must be completed by the standards committee.
Labour accused the government of “dirty tricks” last night because its amendment does not guarantee parliamentary time for a vote on changing the standards rules next year.
There are 25 politicians who spend the equivalent of at least one working day a week on outside work for which they are paid. Almost one in four Tory MPs spend at least 100 hours a year on their second job.
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and chairman of the standards committee, which is already looking into the code of conduct, accused Downing Street of “flapping about like a demented chicken”.
Johnson held a Downing Street reception last night for Tory MPs from the 2019 intake during which he apologised for “driving the golf ball into the sandpit” over his handling of the Paterson vote and sleaze allegations.