Boris Johnson’s broken promise on MPs’ second jobs fits a pattern

“Like the farrago over Downing Street parties during lockdown, the prime minister’s change of heart – if such it is – over MPs’ second jobs appears to fit a longstanding pattern, in which he says whatever it takes to get out of a tight spot, and thinks nothing of reversing course later”.

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com 

Boris Johnson’s promise to crack down on MPs’ second jobs came at a perilous moment for his premiership last autumn, with backbenchers in open revolt over the botched attempt to save the disgraced MP Owen Paterson.

It was a classic Johnson manoeuvre – a bold bid to get ahead of the story, claiming to outflank Labour by promising that MPs would be “appropriately punished” if they put their second employers, not their constituents, first.

Yet, like the prime minister’s initial response to the Partygate stories that began to emerge in December, also aimed at making hostile headlines go away, it has unravelled completely.

In October the fury over MPs’ second jobs had been stoked by Johnson’s own behaviour. After marching Tory MPs through the voting lobbies to protect Paterson, the prime minister U-turned the next day, as opposition parties refused to take part in a cross-party committee to rewrite the parliamentary standards system.

As the outrage over the Paterson case grew, the government was rocked by story after story about Tory MPs’ lucrative second jobs – including the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox practising from the British Virgin Islands during the pandemic.

So febrile was the mood that when Johnson flew to Glasgow to join the crucial Cop26 climate summit for a day, he found himself challenged about parliamentary sleaze, telling the assembled journalists the UK was “not remotely a corrupt country”.

Several days later, with Labour poised to exploit Tory divisions by using an opposition day debate to force a vote on toughening up the rules, Downing Street abruptly announced that it would go further.

Cracks appeared almost immediately. Cabinet ministers, sent out to explain the move, which was tabled as an amendment to Labour’s motion, offered few details. Asked how exactly second jobs would be constrained, Dominic Raab said: “You could do it by the amount or you could do it by the number of hours.”

When the trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, was asked how many hours might be reasonable, she gave several different answers in a single morning broadcast round.

There was always an element of theatre to the plan, too. The long-established standards committee, chaired by Chris Bryant, which had handed down Paterson’s 30-day suspension, was already carrying out a review of MPs’ code of conduct, which was expected to cover issues including second jobs.

It is to that review that the government has now made its own submission – flatly contradicting the promises made by ministers in the autumn.

It is unclear whether Johnson and his aides knew at the time they made the proposal that they had no intention of pushing it through to a conclusion, or whether they have caved in in the face of intensive lobbying from backbench MPs keen to hold on to their lucrative side hustles.

Certainly, Johnson has never had any principled objection to second jobs, having edited the Spectator while an MP and then been a Telegraph columnist – as well as, for a short while, being both mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge.

Having described the £250,000 a year he was paid for his Telegraph outpourings as “chicken feed”, and frequently complained to friends about his money troubles, he may also have had some sympathy for those colleagues complaining that they couldn’t live on their parliamentary salary alone.

But like the farrago over Downing Street parties during lockdown, the prime minister’s change of heart – if such it is – over MPs’ second jobs appears to fit a longstanding pattern, in which he says whatever it takes to get out of a tight spot, and thinks nothing of reversing course later.