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  1. The Explainer
10 November 2021

What is the Geoffrey Cox scandal all about?

The former Conservative minister and highest-earning MP, who has made £1m from non-parliamentary work in the past year, is mired in the Tory sleaze scandal.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Conservative MP and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox has been referred to the parliamentary commissioner for standards – the House of Commons’s anti-sleaze watchdog – for appearing to conduct private business from his Westminster office.

Who is Geoffrey Cox?

Cox is a top QC who was attorney general under prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson, from 2018 to 2020.

What has Geoffrey Cox got to do with Brexit?

He is perhaps best known by the wider public for his role in the Brexit drama of 2019 – providing legal advice to the government that the prorogation of parliament (unanimously ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court) was lawful.

The attempted prorogation is still seen by many Brexit opponents as a cynical attempt to avoid MPs’ scrutiny of government Brexit plans in the weeks leading up to the UK’s EU departure deadline at the end of October 2019.

How much does Geoffrey Cox earn?

Cox is the highest-earning MP because of the legal work he does in addition to representing the Torridge and West Devon constituency. Over the past year, he has been paid more than £1m working for clients, including the government of the British Virgin Islands.

At the beginning of this month (1 November), he began a contract with international legal services firm Consultant Global Counsel at £400,000 a year for up to 41 hours of work a month. This is on top of his MP’s salary of £81,932.

You can see the earnings he’s registered here.

The Mail revealed Cox also used proxy voting rules brought in during the pandemic to vote from the Caribbean while doing legal work for the British Virgin Islands.

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What has Geoffrey Cox done wrong?

He had not broken any parliamentary rules, however, until the Times got hold of footage that appears to show Cox joining a remote hearing to defend the British Virgin Islands in a corruption case brought by the UK government from his parliamentary office.

This potentially breaks parliamentary rules, as the code of conduct for MPs states that: “Members shall ensure that their use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has said she is referring Cox to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, for investigation, commenting: “This appears to be an egregious, brazen breach of the rules.”

[See also: Owen Paterson has resigned, but the headache for the Conservatives is far from over]

Stone’s decision to suspend former cabinet minister and Tory MP Owen Paterson was the spark for an ongoing row involving allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, and the wider debate about whether MPs should be allowed to have second jobs. Paterson, who has since resigned as an MP, was found to have used his parliamentary office and stationery for consultancy work.

Will Geoffrey Cox resign?

If Stone investigates Cox’s conduct and makes a similar finding to the Paterson case, then there is a possible scenario in which Cox faces what is known as a recall petition. This mechanism was introduced in 2015, following the expenses scandal, to allow constituents to trigger a special election to remove their MP before the next election.

One factor that can trigger a recall is if an MP is suspended from the House following a report and recommended sanction by the committee on standards (a committee made up of seven MPs and seven lay members that oversees the work of the parliamentary commissioner for standards).

Ten per cent of constituents would need to sign the recall petition for Cox’s Torridge and West Devon seat to become vacant, in which case there would be a by-election (which he would be allowed to run in).

Will Geoffrey Cox be voted out?

As my colleague Stephen Bush writes, this constituency 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”.

Of course, if Cox is not recalled but the rules are changed on MPs’ second jobs, then there is also the prospect of Cox choosing his lucrative legal career over remaining in the Commons – a scenario that could also lead to a by-election.

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson has said MPs should be “visible in their constituencies”, but that Boris Johnson did not support an outright ban on second jobs. The Times reports that Cox has privately dismissed calls for him to resign.

 [See also: How much trouble will the revelations over Geoffrey Cox’s second job cause Boris Johnson?]

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