End the farce of MPs taking second jobs

Published by The i paper (8th November, 2021)

Sir John Major was on fiery form interviewed over the weekend by the BBC, lashing out at the arrogant, corrupt and “unconservative” government that is undermining the country. The former Tory prime minister admitted he was angry, saying he was alarmed by his successor’s shameful contempt for decency, the law and the nation’s global reputation. When challenged on the sleaze that tormented his own stint in Downing Street, the man who rose from the back streets of Brixton to the top office pointed out that he led efforts to stamp out wrongdoing, whereas Boris Johnson last week attempted to defend bad behaviour by one of his MPs.

Major was right to be furious. The Owen Paterson scandal brought together two toxic issues that I have long raised: the destructive unsuitability of Johnson to serve as prime minister – something so obvious that all those careerists and lackeys serving his selfish needs are left indelibly stained – and the endemic corruption that plagues our political system, even as we lecture others on good governance. This abuse of power is so blatant that parliament even has one house stuffed with rich people who bought their right to rule over the rest of us by chucking cash at political parties, alongside scores more who inherited seats through their families.

It is all rather Ruritanian. There are, of course, many dedicated MPs on all sides of the tribal divide who work hard to serve the needs of their nation and constituents. Yet their efforts, along with the wavering public trust in politics, are dragged down when we glimpse the sordid behaviour of grasping individuals who see politics as a path to rapid self-enrichment. It is wearily depressing to see this latest exposé of a system that sanctions the abuse of patronage and power. There is a desperate need for a clean-up; instead, we have a prime minister who has persistently demonstrated personal greed along with his guiding belief that rules are for little people rather than himself and his pals.

As Major and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have pointed out, Johnson’s defence of Paterson highlighted concerns that corrode the reputation of both Westminster and the country. This latest scandal arose under a prime minister who believes leadership amounts to boasting and bragging rather than action or achievements, beyond spending other people’s money. There are many systemic flaws that need to be tackled to salvage Westminster, from reforming the House of Lords through to changing our electoral system to make it more representative. Yet one issue stands out from last week’s farce: the extraordinary concept that MPs can openly take cash from outsiders seeking influence.

This is defended on grounds that “second jobs” ensure greater expertise in parliament. It is strange how proponents of this anachronistic arrangement argue that it is fine to take on extra work while being paid £81,932 for a supposedly full-time post, especially one that leads to frequent complaints over pressures of work and consequent damage to family life. Perhaps this is arguable with someone such as Dan Poulter, a Suffolk Tory MP who spends some time working on the NHS frontline as a psychiatrist specialising in addiction, or those politicians publishing articles or books to promote their ideas.

But ask a simple question: why did a medical diagnostics firm and a sausage distributor think it worth paying Paterson so much money – up to £520.82 an hour – that he could more than double his parliamentary salary for a few hours extra work each month? Here is a man who sold leather before entering Westminster. He was nicknamed “Woodentop” by colleagues due to lack of intellectual heft. His four years in Cabinet left little visible trace. And his lack of political nous was shown again by such unrepentant defiance last week after his boss came to his defence, ignoring a damning standards inquiry to insist he would do the same thing again. Such hubris hastened the Downing Street reversal.

Paterson is popular and well-connected. Yet it seems fair to conclude that half a million pounds from corporate pals was not poured into his bank account as reward for brainpower, expertise or political skills. Given some of his antediluvian views, a cynic might suggest his hardline conservatism could have been tempered if he had spent a bit more time investigating issues before speaking out. Thankfully he will soon be political history, since he has resigned his Shropshire seat. Yet he has shone a spotlight on something that stinks, since he is far from alone in exploiting his parliamentary position, even though direct lobbying is theoretically banned.

One in five MPs holds down regular paid work on top of any parliamentary duties, including 15 of the 59 MPs signing the amendment to get Paterson off the hook. Those who then backed the move included former aid minister Andrew Mitchell, a defender of the bloodstained Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame, who near-triples his parliamentary pay with a collection of consultancies that includes a bank run by a close Kagame confidante. One-time energy minister John Hayes, who has compared climate protesters to “radical Islam”, collects £50,000 for 11 days work with an energy firm. Even Ian Blackford, the garrulous SNP leader at Westminster, boosted his income with outside roles until recently.

Or consider the case of former transport secretary Chris Grayling, another backer of last week’s snub to democracy. Here is a man with a dire track record who left a trail of chaos behind him in various Cabinet posts – yet is handed a six-figure salary by a port operator for just seven hours work a week. Nice work if you can get it. But in the wake of the Paterson scandal, it does not seem overly suspicious to wonder why such firms are willing to pay vast fees to politicians for a few hours work a week? These second jobs, influence peddling dressed up as consultancies, may be legal but they are not ethical. This is simply corruption that needs to be stopped.

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