Last Thursday, the former Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson resigned following immense controversy following the Government’s decision to overrule his parliamentary suspension. More recently, Sir Geoffrey Cox – a former Attorney-General no less – was found to have practiced his private legal practice, which had earned him almost £900,000 in the last year, from his -parliamentary office; this triggered former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid to state that MPs should not be using their offices for private work – “I can’t see why you would be using anything that is funded by the taxpayer” for private use. These two cases come in the wake of the Conservative’s previous national scandal when it was revealed that lobbying and corruption were at the centre of the party’s governance. The Paterson and Cox cases are, no doubt, not isolated incidents. However, one can’t help but wonder – considering how desperate the Tories were to present themselves as a working person’s party during the 2019 General Election and Brexit campaign: can the growing list of failures save the Tories from another 1990s-esque sleaze scandal?
What did Paterson and Cox do?
Since leaving the Cameron government, Owen Paterson was a paid consultant for Randox Laboratories and Lynn’s Country Foods. He was paid £8,333 a month by the former for 16 hours work, and £2,000 a month by the latter for four hours work. In total, less than two working days worth of work had left proud Brexiteer Owen Paterson with an earnings of £10,000+ a month. Whilst being investigated by the Commission for Parliamentary standards, it was found that Paterson had approached and met with representatives of the Food Standards Agency and Department for International Development on numerous occasions. In addition to this, he had used his parliamentary stationery and office for his consultancy work on behalf of both companies. In effect, the £10,000+ a month were payments made by the companies for their interests to be represented in Parliament. Under the rules, Mr Paterson had without question engaged in “an egregious case of paid advocacy” according to the Standards Committee. After what he had called an “intolerable” few days, Mr Paterson resigned as MP for North Shropshire; a by-election will be held in December 2021.
For Sir Geoffrey Cox, meanwhile, a continued place in the House of Commons seems to be the party line; he has, however, stated he wants the electorate to determine his future. Despite violating the clear rule that MPs cannot use public resources for personal or financial benefit, I.E using your parliamentary office, Sir Geoffrey earned almost £900,000 in the last year operating privately as a barrister; whilst MPs are allowed to take second jobs outside of politics, they are required to ensure there is no conflict of interest between their private and public lives. Irrespective of this, Sir Geoffrey used his parliamentary office to attend virtual meetings and other such occasions using his former position in government as bargaining chip for thousands in lobbying funds; Labour have referred this case to the Independent Parliamentary Commission for Standards.
Where’s the controversy?
The recent sleazes allegations have come on three separate fronts. On the one hand, the government’s lobbying and corruption allegations, coming from the mishandling of Covid-Contracts and other governmental business during the pandemic’s peaks, has led many inside and outside of Parliament to questions whether the government is acting in the national interest, or in its own; the key claim made by oppositionists is that they operate one rule for the people, and another set for themselves. On the other hand, the recent revelations regarding Mr Paterson and Sir Geoffrey Cox have reaffirmed this belief, with many saying that this Sleaze scandal may mimic that of the 1990s – that which many believe led to Tony Blair’s historic 1997 landslide.
The most questionable controversy – questionable in the sense that the Government undoubtedly acted against democracy, Parliament, and any suggestion of best practice – came from the House of Common’s decision, heavily urged by the Government, to overrule Owen Paterson’s suspension from the chamber. Following the Standards Committee’s conclusion that Paterson had violated parliamentary rules, Paterson was issued a suspension. In no time at all, the Conservatives had issued a motion to overrule the suspension, and to alter the parliamentary rules in such a way that they effectively void themselves. This action, influenced greatly by the Conservative’s 2019 election victory of an 80 seat majority, was met by cries of “shame” by the opposition benches.
Can the Conservatives Recover?
When the party leader, who also happens to be Prime Minister – whether he is aware of it or not –, has to tell world leaders that the UK is not a corrupt country, from a pedestal within the United Kingdom, there’s fair reason to question what the future of the Conservative party is. There’s no doubt, as history has shown us, that the Conservative Party will survive for centuries to come, with or without the support of the British electorate. However, the party’s current efforts to present themselves as the ‘party of the people’ may have come under a certain amount of duress.
Whether it’s the lobbying scandals, the corruption allegations, the misuse of covid-contracts during the pandemic, or the fact that the party is largely made up of Eaton-Oxbridge and trust-fund Tories, there’s no question that the ‘working mans’ party’ is a claim the Conservatives have lost the ability to make. Instead, the party of privilege and self-service is how we should, once again, think of the Conservative party. But they’re not alone. 20 MPs in the House of Commons, including Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, are known to take on consultancy work thanks to their roles as MPs. Whilst the recent Tory Sleaze-saga is a reason to question the government’s legitimacy these days, it’s also clear that the UK needs serious culture reform in it’s senior most branch of Government – Parliament.