Boris Johnson cannot be trusted to keep corruption out of politics
Seeing a Conservative government knee deep in scandal is nothing new. It feels like we are re-living the 1990s with Tory corruption dominating the headlines, Tory MPs protecting their mates, and an absence of an independent and rigorous standards process.
In the face of Conservative MPs gaming the system to enrich themselves, John Major and Boris Johnson handled the scandal in very different ways. While Major chose to establish the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate MPs’ behaviour, Johnson chose instead to whip his MPs to rip up the rule book to protect one of their own.
Owen Paterson made nearly a quarter of a million pounds from his lobbying work on behalf of two private companies and was judged by the Standards Commissioner to have brought the House of Commons into disrepute. What should have been a straightforward vote on agreeing the sanctions proposed by the Standards Commissioner and the cross-party Standards Committee, was instead hijacked by Boris Johnson to save Paterson and rip up a 30-year consensus on the enforcement of standards.
Allowing Tory corruption to taint the halls of power risks the very foundation of our centuries-old democracy
In the days that followed this shameful vote, scrutiny of the paid consultancy work undertaken by other Tory MPs has revealed the enormous sums earned and potential conflicts of interest. Andrew Mitchell receives over £180,000 a year in consultancy work from six different companies, Julian Smith makes £144,000 from three companies, and the infamous former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling makes £100,000 a year from Hutchinson Ports which operates the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich. Coincidentally, Felixstowe and Harwich were awarded freeport status, where normal tax and customs rules do not apply, by Rishi Sunak earlier this year.
To top it off, Geoffrey Cox was found to have been working and voting remotely out of the British Virgin Islands for much of this year. He pocketed £150,000 of his nearly £1m extra-parliamentary earnings for advising the tax haven’s government on Foreign Office corruption charges.
The latest farcical episode in the whole sorry saga played out late Monday night, when the government attempted to U-turn on the vote to rip up the rules on standards but was stymied by one of their own backbench MPs.
This scandal is just the latest in the long line of events, in which the government has shown total contempt for the rules. From defending Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaking trip to Barnard Castle, to handing billions of pounds of taxpayer money to their donors and friends during the pandemic. From start to finish, the Conservatives have shown a Trumpian disregard for the public.
If the last two weeks of scandal-ridden headlines has taught us anything, it is that the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson cannot be trusted to keep corruption out of politics. Standards are fundamental to public trust in our democracy. The Nolan principles of integrity, honesty, openness, objectivity, accountability, selflessness, and leadership govern how those of us in public life should behave. On all counts, Boris Johnson and his MPs are failing.
No one in public life, let alone an MP, should be for hire. You cannot be a lawmaker and a lobbyist. Labour has been calling for MPs to be banned from holding paid consultancies and directorships, and if the Conservatives have even an ounce of integrity, they will enact this important reform.
As the government continues to plough its way through this unnecessary and undignified mess entirely of their own making, the Labour Party meanwhile has a plan to clean up politics.
The next Labour government would ban ministers from accepting lobbying jobs for five years, create a truly independent anti-corruption and anti-cronyism commission, and establish an Office for Value for Money to ensure every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.
Politicians have a duty to uphold the highest standards. We are entrusted by the public to safeguard and protect our democracy. Failing to do so and allowing Tory corruption to taint the halls of power risks the very foundation of our centuries-old democracy.
Afzal Khan is the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton and shadow deputy leader of the House of Commons.
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