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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue