Boris Johnson supports ban on political advisory roles for UK MPs

Boris Johnson has been stunned to propose a ban on MPs working as paid political consultants or lobbyists in an attempt to shut down a sleaze scandal that has dominated Westminster politics for the past fourteen days.

The British Prime Minister made the announcement on Twitter, just as Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition party Labor, was about to start a press conference to lay out similar plans after days of negative headlines about MPs’ interests from outside.

On Wednesday, Labor will put forward a proposal in the House of Commons to prevent MPs from holding jobs as a strategist, adviser or consultant.

Downing Street discussed how to respond to the proposal Tuesday night, but was expected to change it to better reflect the prime minister’s proposal. A senior Tory official said the government would seek to “strengthen” the opposition’s proposal.

Johnson said in his tweet that he had written to the Commons’ Speaker to propose cross-party reforms of the standard system in parliament.

Boris Johnsons tweet
Boris Johnsons tweet © Twitter

The Prime Minister’s recommendations include an update of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament and a ban on Members of Parliament working as paid consultants or lobbyists. He said it was important that MPs who prioritize outside interests over their constituents should be “investigated and punished appropriately”.

But Johnson’s proposal does not preclude MPs from taking on paid board positions or acting as consultants in matters that are not considered political. A well-placed Whitehall official pointed out that there was “an awful lot of room for what defines[d] political advice ”.

In 2018, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the anti-corruption watchdog, recommended that MPs should not take on external employment as a “parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”. It noted, however, at the time that only a “handful of MPs” still held such positions.

Johnson himself has received £ 4.3 million from outside interests while elected as a politician, but this has been through speeches and books rather than through advisory work.

The Prime Minister’s intervention was timed to derail Starmer’s attempts to seize the political initiative with his demand to stop the “revolving door” between the government and state-regulated companies. But the Labor leader described Johnson’s move as a “significant victory” for the opposition party.

Westminster has been embroiled in a sleaze scandal since Tory MPs voted two weeks ago, at Johnson’s urging, to revise the system of parliamentary standards.

The controversial parliamentary maneuver was a ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save Tory colleague and former minister Owen Paterson, whom the parliamentary watchdog found out had broken the lobbying rules in a “gruesome case of paid advocacy” while working as a paid consultant for two companies.

After an embarrassing turn of government led to Paterson’s resignation, the focus of the media inquiry shifted to other jobs occupied by other Tory MPs, including Sir Geoffrey Cox. The former public prosecutor has come under scrutiny over his role as an adviser to a tax haven.

Theresa May, the former Tory prime minister, accused Johnson of “harming parliament” during a Commons debate on the issue Tuesday afternoon.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, admitted that the attempt to save Paterson was a “serious mistake”. In a speech on the ConservativeHome podcast, Rees-Mogg said he had personally urged the prime minister to “go this route and I was wrong. I made a mistake.”

Asked by a Labor MP in the Commons later how the government had misjudged the situation, Rees-Mogg said ministers had been affected by Paterson’s wife’s suicide.

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