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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times