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11 November 2021

Why the row over MPs’ second jobs is such a headache for Boris Johnson

It’s not clear how the Prime Minister can end the crisis without another taking its place.

By Stephen Bush

Geoffrey Cox continues to be under fire for his extensive legal activities – the Guardian has totted up all his legal earnings during his time as an MP and found that he has earned a cool £6m in outside work.  

Cox has released a defiant statement about his extra-curricular activities, saying they were known to the chief whip and that his legal work in the British Virgin Islands was cleared by the present attorney-general.  

The difficult truth for the government is that, for all it is busily briefing its irritation and frustration with Cox, the Torridge and West Devon MP’s legal work has long been part of the deal for eminent barristers who enter the Commons, and for former attorneys-general even more so: keep on practising the law, and after a tenure as the government’s senior law officer, you’ll have an even better, more lucrative and/or fulfilling set of cases to pick from than before.  

[see also: Geoffrey Cox is the last of his kind. More’s the pity]

Of course, most of the behaviour that so outraged voters during the expenses scandal was part of a similar “deal”. And indeed, a backbench MP earning £30,000 as chair of a packaging group arguing in the Commons that “it is not the packaging manufacturer that is the polluter: people are” – as Stefan Boscia reveals in CityAM the Conservative MP Mark Pawsey did – has long been seen as part of the “deal” for government backbenchers.  And ex-ministers getting to earn £425-an-hour working for an aerospace company, while advocating for more defence spending, as Billy Kenber, George Greenwood and NS alumnus George Grylls reveal in the Times the Tory MP Philip Dunne did, is also part of the “deal” for sacked or displaced ministers.  

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I suspect that as far as voter anger is concerned, people immediately see a difference between these stories and an accountant or lawyer continuing to operate a reduced practice, or a doctor or a nurse doing something similar as an MP. Someone who sets up a business and continues to run it as an MP may even be able to spin that as an asset, politically speaking. Cox may well be right to say that actually, his voters know full well about his legal activities and don’t care – if he’s not, I suspect that his electoral problem will be about the scale of his second job rather than its existence.  

But these little side-gigs… I think for most people they just look and smell bad. And for the government, the problem is that the side-gigs, while not exclusive to this government, are generally pretty exclusive to the governing party, because there is not an awful lot of value in trying to influence the decisions of an opposition MP when the government has a large majority.    

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Another problem for the government is that the second jobs game is one anyone can play – simply sit down with the register of interests, pull up the MP in question’s page on the parliament website, and see if you can find a conflict of interest in either their written questions or their statements in the House. And it’s not wholly clear if it is a game the government can end, other than by putting further restrictions in place, which creates internal problems for the Prime Minister, or because the story has been pushed off the agenda by some new and deeper crisis. 

[see also: Behind Boris Johnson’s masks]