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Geoffrey Cox

Geoffrey Cox. Photo: Chris McAndrew / UK Parliament

Terina Hine on the growing Tory corruption crisis

On Sunday, Cabinet minister George Eustice dismissed the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal as a storm in a teacup”, a Westminster bubble story that would blow over. But today’s papers tell a different story. As MP’s lucrative outside earnings are exposed across most front pages, and the charges of corruption mount, we see a government completely out of its depth, a PM in hiding and a growing number of furious Tory MPs.

Geoffrey Cox, former attorney-general and now backbench MP for West Devon, took advantage of Covid-19 rules and travelled four thousand miles to the Caribbean where he was able to earn £150,000 for just one month’s work. His job: advising the tax havens government on how to defend itself over corruption charges brought by the UK Foreign Office. He was even there while Parliament debated imposing sanctions to counter global corruption. You really couldn’t make it up.

Over the past year, Cox’s legal work has earned him £1m on top of his £82,000 MP’s salary. Too busy to participate in parliament he has contributed to just one parliamentary debate since February 2020. Today, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds has written to the PM to ask whether Cox is a “Caribbean-based barrister or a Conservative MP”.

The whole affair is a major own goal for the Tories, inflicted by their incompetent leadership. It began when Johnson whipped his MPs in a failed attempt to protect his mate Owen Patterson for breaking lobbying rules, while simultaneously attempting to rip up the rule book. Winning the vote but faced with dire political consequences, No 10 rapidly U-turned. Compliant Tory MPs were left looking not only corrupt but stupid. And while the PM hides from the fallout, refusing to apologise or show contrition, his embarrassed MPs are fuming and the media is digging.

And if the MPs were angry before, that anger is reaching new levels today as the row escalates beyond the Paterson debacle and the media spotlight is turning its focus on MPs’ own outside interests. A move which could lead to a crackdown on MPs holding second jobs.

Today’s papers divulge the extent of the greasy political ladder that is the Conservative Party. According to the analysis in the Guardian, over a quarter of Conservative MPs hold a second job - compared to just three Labour MPs. The highest earners are all former cabinet ministers.

The normally supportive Daily Mail has a list of 11 MPs all earning eye watering sums with multiple consultancy contracts - Andrew Mitchell is the winner holding six different contracts.

The Sun has compiled a list of what they have termed the “dirty dozen” - MPs who have made more than £3.5m (in addition to their MP salaries) in just two years - Geoffrey Cox is the winner in the big bucks chart, with his £1m earnings; Theresa May comes a disrespectful second on £760,000 (made amazingly from after-dinner speeches) and the only non-Tory member of the club is Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, who trails in 12th place amassing a mere £78,000 from his consultancy work. Even Failing Chris Grayling makes a whopping £100,000.

Should MPs be paid more to prevent this moonlighting as some in the media suggest - it is after all a demanding job with sometimes punishing hours? Alternatively, they could try a little harder to make ends meet. You decide. A backbench MP currently earns £81,932. This puts MPs in the top 5% of UK earners - the average UK salary in 2021 is £25,971. MPs earn more than an average NHS doctor who gets £76,300 or nurse who receives £33,384, or the average secondary school teacher who earns £37,000. Surely it is enough?

But it’s not just that the line between consultancy work and lobbying is so fine as to be invisible. This all comes on the back of fast-tracked Covid contracts, the PM’s dubious payment arrangements for £840-per-roll wallpaper and his No 11 flat refurb, and Tory treasurers donating £3m to the party and ending up in the Lords.

This latest Tory sleaze story has spiralled beyond Owen Paterson and the government's incompetent efforts to protect him. It has exposed a level of corruption at the centre of power that even some of those who are usually sympathetic feel can no longer be ignored. Downing Street is losing support from its own and the Tories are losing support from the country. There is a crisis at the heart of government and its growing.

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