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16 November 2021

Will Boris Johnson’s proposals on MPs’ second jobs end the sleaze row?

The Prime Minister’s bid to steal a march on Keir Starmer risks further antagonising Tory backbenchers.

By Stephen Bush

Just make the pain stop! That’s the political impulse behind Boris Johnson’s package of proposed changes to how MPs operate. He has written to the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, endorsing measures that would ban MPs from any paid work “as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”, and proposing that an MP’s outside interests must not interfere with a “reasonable standard” of work as a constituency MP. He will hope that the timing also overshadows Keir Starmer’s own proposals, which go further and ban not only consultancies but most second jobs.

Will it work? In policy terms, it is these side gigs as consultants that have damaging implications for the democratic process: they create conflicts of interest and potentially lead to groups or organisations wielding undue influence. While you or I might not want to have an MP who does hours and hours of paid work as a lawyer, a newspaper columnist or an accountant on the side, it doesn’t have the same societally damaging consequences as a job as a consultant. 

But in political terms, Johnson’s proposed measures are fraught with risks. According to the polls, most voters oppose both the democratically damaging stuff around consultancies (which both Johnson and Starmer’s proposals would do) and MPs working second jobs as accountants, lawyers and newspaper columnists (which Starmer’s proposals would do but Johnson’s would not). So the danger here is that Johnson’s approach won’t bring the row over second jobs to a close; it may in fact deepen it. 

There is also the potential for difficult edge cases. Is an MP who works as chairman of the Foodservice Packaging Association, the umbrella organisation of all foodservice packaging companies, engaging in prohibited behaviour, or not? You can argue it either way: I think the letter of the law gets you one answer and “does this pass the smell test” gets you another answer. Added to that difficulty, there are surely enough edge cases that aren’t banned by Johnson’s proposed changes, and would be under those proposed by Labour, that you can see how this intervention doesn’t make the problem go away. 

Whether the House of Commons ends up banning consultancies in measures similar to those proposed by Johnson or ends up with something more like those proposed by Starmer, a large number of Tory backbenchers are going to end up out of pocket – and nursing a grudge with their party’s leadership as a result. That may have big implications for the Prime Minister’s ability to pursue controversial or difficult measures in the future, long after the details of the Owen Paterson crisis are forgotten.

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[See also: Most MPs’ wages have grown faster than their constituents]

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