Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind deny breaking the rules. Photos: Getty
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Lobbying sting: Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind suspended from their parties

Senior MPs secretly filmed by journalists deny that they have broken the rules in a "cash for access" sting.

"Cash for access": the three-word phrase that makes our politicians' knees tremble the most, perhaps only behind "price of milk".

The Telegraphafter a torrid week for the paper, and Channel 4's Dispatches, have secretly filmed two high-profile politicians in conversation with a bogus Chinese company seeking to use their influence and contacts.

Jack Straw, Labour MP for Blackburn and former foreign secretary, was caught telling the undercover reporters that it was best to operate "under the radar" when trying to change EU rules, and revealed that this had been his approach in the past.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, also an ex-foreign secretary, and chair of the intelligence and security select committee, boasted to the disguised journalists that he could offer “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world, because of his status. The Tory MP for Kensington also added: "I am self-employed nobody pays me a salary. I have to earn my income." This is in spite of his £67,000 MP's salary.

Both politicians have denied wrongdoing and have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Rifkind's defence is that he believed the (fake) firm was seeking his help as a former foreign secretary, rather than in his current capacity as an MP: “I have never undertaken, nor would I undertake, any lobbying as an MP on behalf of any private organisation from which I was receiving remuneration.”

He told the BBC's Today programme this morning that he is "irritated and angry" about how his recorded conversation has been interpreted, but is not embarrassed. "These are very serious allegations," he warned. "They are unfounded and I’m going to fight them with all my strength."

Straw has been voluntarily suspended temporarily from the Labour party, "because of the way this appears", rather than because he feels he has broken the rules. Although he says he is "mortified" at falling into "a very skilful trap", he insists that his use of language during the conversation was not "necessarily wrong but can be taken out of context". However, he did "regret the fact that I ever saw these people".

He said he has "been absolutely scrupulous" during his 36 years in parliament, adding that the company wanted his services "once I'd left" (he is standing down in May). "The discussion with this bogus Chinese Hong Kong company was not about what I was going to do as a member of parliament," he argued.

The politicians' activities, whether or not they were breaking the rules, will return the debate about MPs' second jobs to the political agenda. This is a good opportunity for Ed Miliband to continue his "sticking it to the man" act, something that I have argued works well for him, following the recent tax avoidance row.

Miliband believes MPs should not have lucrative work on the side, and will ban Labour MPs from holding company directorships and earning more than 15 per cent of their income through outside interests after the next election.

Update: 11.10, 23/2/15

Miliband has indeed used this story as a chance to reiterate his stance against MPs' second jobs. He has written a letter to David Cameron challenging him to follow his lead:

Dear Prime Minister, 
 
I write this letter to you not just as leader of the Labour Party but as someone who believes that we all need to act to improve the reputation of our Parliament in the eyes of the British people.
 
I believe MPs are dedicated to the service of their constituents and the overwhelming majority follow the rules. But the British people need to know that when they vote they are electing someone who will represent them directly, and not be swayed by what they may owe to the interests of others.
 
Two years ago I said Labour MPs would not be able to hold paid directorships or consultancies after the next election. 
 
My party is also consulting on legislation to make this a statutory ban, as well as imposing a strict cap on all outside earnings by MPs. 
 
Today I can confirm that these measures will be included in my party’s General Election manifesto. 
 
The low levels of trust in politics demands clarity and I urge you to follow my lead in banning paid directorships and consultancies.  
 
There have been too many scandals about conflicts of interest in recent years. 
 
It is time to draw a line under this and ensure these current allegations are the last. 
 
I am sure you will agree this is a problem which affects all parties. 
 
I believe these are circumstances which demand action and leadership.
 
I look forward to receiving your response.
 
Yours, 
 
Ed Miliband 

Update: 12.30, 23/2/15

The Tories have withdrawn the party whip from Rifkind. Yet as whips no longer appoint select committee chairs, this does not automatically remove Rifkind from his position chairing the intelligence and security committee. The committee reports to parliament. The Prime Minister has pointed this out, refusing to call on Rifkind to resign his committee position. Figures such as the Labour MP Tom Watson are outraged that the chair of such a committee, whose integrity has been called into question, will be allowed to remain in his position. Watson said:

The idea that we can have a chair of an intelligence committee who is negotiating payment from a Chinese company would really concern people in the intelligence community. I heard the Prime Minister’s answer at the press conference. For him to not take responsibility whether it is the right thing to do or not is ducking the question . . . 

If the chair of the intelligence committee no longer has the confidence of the Prime Minister, then he shouldn’t be in that position. I think the Prime Minister needs to form a view whether he wants the intelligence committee chair to be working as a lobbyist for Chinese companies. Just put it the other way round. Do you think the Chinese government would let the equivalent chair of the intelligence committee in China work for a British company?

Rifkind himself says he won't stand down unless his committee colleagues want him to. "One's got nothing to do with the other," he said of the scandal and his chairmanship. "None of the matters are remotely to do with intelligence or security."

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Donald Trump vs Barack Obama: How the inauguration speeches compared

We compared the two presidents on trade, foreign affairs and climate change – so you (really, really) don't have to.

After watching Donald Trump's inaugural address, what better way to get rid of the last few dregs of hope than by comparing what he said with Barack Obama's address from 2009? 

Both thanked the previous President, with Trump calling the Obamas "magnificent", and pledged to reform Washington, but the comparison ended there. 

Here is what each of them said: 

On American jobs

Obama:

The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift.  And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.  We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.  And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

Trump:

For many decades we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind.

Obama had a plan for growth. Trump just blames the rest of the world...

On global warming

Obama:

With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

Trump:

On the Middle East:

Obama:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 

Trump:

We will re-enforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

On “greatness”

Obama:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.

Trump:

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

 

On trade

Obama:

This is the journey we continue today.  We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.  Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.  Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year.  Our capacity remains undiminished.  

Trump:

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never ever let you down.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland