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10 November 2021

How much trouble will the revelations over Geoffrey Cox’s second job cause Boris Johnson?

A video has emerged in which the former attorney general appears to be using his parliamentary office to conduct his legal work.

By Stephen Bush

Here’s the latest news on Operation: Get The Toothpaste Back in the Tube. The government will table a motion to accept the findings of the parliamentary standards commissioner’s report into Owen Paterson’s conduct, and to undo the creation of the proposed new standards committee.  

The trouble is, the toothpaste – or, to put it plainly, the “renewed media interest in MPs’ side-hustles” – won’t go back in the tube. The Mail’s John Stevens reveals that Daniel Kawczynski has earned more than £250,000 performing consultancy work for a mining company while serving as the government’s trade envoy to the mineral-rich country of Mongolia, while the Guardian’s Ben Quinn reports that Iain Duncan Smith is facing questions about the £25,000 a year he was paid by the hand sanitiser company Byotrol.  

But the most dangerous scoop from the government’s perspective comes from New Statesman alumnus Henry Zeffman in the Times: he’s got hold of a video of Geoffrey Cox in which the former attorney general appears to be using his parliamentary office to conduct his legal work. This may be a breach of Commons rules, which dictate that parliamentary resources should be used in support of MPs’ parliamentary duties. Labour has reported Cox to the standards commissioner, and it’s possible that Cox may face a recall petition in his seat. 

Forget what you may read or hear from people engaging in expectations management: the two looming by-elections in North Shropshire and Old Bexley and Sidcup are as safe as you can get for the Conservatives, well-stocked as they are with Leave voters and homeowners, and relatively free of graduates, renters and Remainers. But Cox’s Torridge and West Devon seat is a trickier prospect: it is rich in Tory-friendly demographics, but it has a history of Liberal Democrat success and the local Liberal Democrat party is still well-organised and active. A by-election in West Devon, whether as a result of a recall or if changes to how MPs conduct their business force Cox to choose between his legal work and his parliamentary career, would be altogether gnarlier than the contests in North Shropshire and Bexley.

Of course, the bigger problem for Boris Johnson is that the only way to put the toothpaste back in the tube may be to sharply limit MPs’ ability to engage in paid consultancies. This would leave large numbers of his backbenchers out of pocket, and for no reason other than the Prime Minister started a fight he didn’t need to pick – and one he shows no sign of being able to finish without inflicting political damage on himself and financial damage on his party’s MPs.