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17 November 2021

Does Boris Johnson’s plan for banning MPs’ second jobs actually fix anything?

The Prime Minister wants to make the story go away and stop Labour outflanking him. He may not achieve either aim.

By Stephen Bush

Operation Unring That Bell latest: Boris Johnson has written to the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, endorsing a series of measures to limit the reach of second jobs, while the government has put down an amendment to Labour’s motion to ban second jobs that would punt the decision to the standards committee and delay the next stage in the process to February 2022.

Under measures proposed by Johnson, MPs would be banned from undertaking paid work “as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”, while an MP’s outside interests must not prevent MPs providing “a reasonable standard” of representation to their constituents.

Will it work? There are three big problems with Johnson’s latest attempt to bring the Paterson saga to a close. The first is that it creates a number of edge cases. Is an MP who works as chair of a trade association undertaking paid work as “a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”? I think personally, in practice, it defies reason to suggest that they aren’t. But as far as the letter of the law goes, in theory, you can see how it is at least arguable to defend Natalie Elphicke’s gig as chair of the New Homes Quality Board, or Mark Pawsey’s as chair of the Foodservice Packaging Association.

The problem with edge cases, of course, is they are a standing invitation to the opposition parties to ask, well, if this is prohibited, why isn’t that? And it deepens the internal problem Johnson faces with these proposals, which is that some Conservative MPs are going to end up rather poorer as a result of them, and if it comes down to a rather vague definition of whether your work is or isn’t that of a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant, that seems like a recipe for resentment and political pain, too.

Then there’s that definition of “reasonable standard”. Well, what’s a reasonable standard? Is it “an email to your MP is answered within a certain timeframe”? A certain number of surgeries? No more than ten hours of extra work, or 15, or 20? It’s anyone’s guess. All it guarantees is more debate and more discussion about MPs’ side gigs: the last thing that anyone in the Tory party with more than two brain cells to rub together wants!  

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The third problem is one of timing: the government’s motion guarantees that all of this will be back on Westminster’s agenda at the end of January. Now, whether you think that today’s inflation figures – at 4.2 per cent, it is well above the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent – are a temporary phenomenon, or that interest rates should remain glued to the floor, or the start of a new and prolonged problem requiring serious action from the Bank, we can say with near absolute certainty that the pressures on the cost of living won’t have gone away by February – and may well get worse. Would I, if I were a Conservative, want to have the second jobs conversation in February 2022? Not on your life.  

The political challenge for Johnson is twofold: the first is to do something to make the story go away, and the second is to make sure that whatever he does is something that Labour can’t outflank him on. It’s far from clear that he has achieved either aim.

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