“Cash for access”: the three-word phrase that makes our politicians’ knees tremble the most, perhaps only behind “price of milk”.
The Telegraph, after 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.
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.”