After a nightmarish fortnight of obfuscations, U-turns and finally apologies, Boris Johnson will be hoping his plan to curb second jobs — hastily unveiled earlier in the week — will mean he can put the whole sorry episode around sleaze behind him and move on.
The prime minister’s plan to tighten the rules around second jobs were set in motion when he got wind that his opposite number, Keir Starmer, was preparing to bounce the Tories into a vote on the issue on Opposition day.
Not wanting to gift his rival all the glory, Johnson wrote to Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle to say the code of conduct for MPs needed to “be updated” and that members who were prioritising outside interests over their constituents should be “investigated and appropriately punished”.
Last night there was a vote that passed through the Commons which the government says will stop MPs from prioritising their outside interests above their constituents.
But what exactly has been agreed and will it really stop MPs from taking on lucrative jobs?
What did MPs vote on?
Yesterday evening, MPs debated and voted on a Labour motion to curb rules around second jobs as well as the government’s alternative plan.
The Labour motion called for MPs to be banned from taking “any paid work to provide services as parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”.
It said the committee on standards should draw up proposals to implement this and report its plans no later than 31 January 2022.
If after 15 days of the proposals being released there still hadn’t been a debate a vote in the House, then MPs would have the power to force one.
Labour’s motion was defeated by a majority of 51 votes.
MPs were then asked to vote on the government plan, which amended the Labour motion to state that as well as banning paid consultancy jobs, any outside role, paid or unpaid, should be “within reasonable limits” —something that is proving to be a bone of contention among Tory MPs.
The government motion passed unopposed by 297 votes to zero after Labour ordered its MPs not to take part.
The committee on standards will be tasked with drawing up the final details by the January date.
How did we get here?
The debate over second jobs was sparked by the actions of one Tory MP and former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson, who has since stepped down from parliament.
Paterson was found by the Commons committee to have broken parliamentary rules after it emerged he had lobbied ministers on behalf of two companies — Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a meat processor and distributor — who were paying him more than £100,000 a year.
After initially seeking to protect Paterson by pausing his suspension while the House considered reform to the standards system — which the government argued was unfair and flawed — it later abandoned its support for the former minister and sought to undo the work it had done to protect him.
The heightened scrutiny was then transferred on to other MPs and ministers, notably the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who has been highly criticised for earning more than £1million in legal work outside parliament, including advising the British Virgin Islands in a corruption probe launched by the Foreign Office.
The jaunt took him away from parliament to the Caribbean at the height of the coronavirus pandemic — leading to accusations he was cashing in at the expense of constituents.
How have the plans been received?
At the moment, it’s not entirely clear what the government plan to curb second jobs will mean in practice — or even if they will come into force.
While the government motion called for the standards committee to come up with recommendations by 31 January next year, in line with the Labour motion, it did not set out how it would implement the recommendations and did not provide for a debate in the Commons on the issue, raising suspicions it could be kicked into the long grass.
Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves warned there was no timetable to implement the plan.
“People look at MPs and think it is just mired in sleaze. I think we need to sort this out quickly to restore the reputation of Parliament,” she told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme.
What constitutes as “reasonable limits” on outside work is also being fiercely contested.
International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan suggested 10 to 20 hours a week would be a reasonable limit, while deputy prime minister Dominic Raab said limits could be placed on the number of hours worked or the amount earned.
What is Labour saying?
Labour has accused the government of watering down and weakening its proposals.
During yesterday’s debate, shadow leader of the House, Thangam Debonnaire, accused the government of trying “to gut” Labour’s motion.
“At the moment I don’t see the government coming up with anything strong. All the government’s done is try to gut our motion, that would put in train the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that was made three years ago that the government could have done any time… that there should be no MP taking money to be a political strategist, an assistant or some sort of corporate adviser, that should not happen.”
And Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the standards committee, expressed concern over whether it would be possible to determine whether an MP was devoting enough time to their constituents.
“The only point I want to make is that I think it would be very difficult for the [standards] commissioner to start investigating whether an MP was devoting enough of their time to their constituents,” he said.
“Of course, all our constituents want us to throw ourselves heart and soul into our work, and I think we all do.
“Many of us work many more hours than a normal working week—60, 70, 80 hours. But I am just very hesitant about going down this route of timesheets or something.”
What are Tory MPs saying?
Some Conservatives tentatively welcomed the reports in parliament, while others were more scathing about them in private.
Nigel Mills, the Tory MP for Amber Valley, said while he welcomed the need for change, “I urge the House to be careful that we get this right”.
“The public expect us to change these rules with due consideration, to ensure that rules are put in place that are fair, consistent and enforceable and do not just leave crazy loopholes.”
Others expressed concern over how it would be decided whether an MP was spending too much time outside of parliament.
Backbencher Edward Leigh said: “How does one determine realistically what is taking too much of one’s time on an outside interest?
“It should be common sense and it should be left to the judgment of the electorate. What worries me is that, if it is left to the commissioner for standards, however distinguished, that will give that official a degree of power never enjoyed by any official ever before over Members of Parliament. We are accountable not to officials, but to our electorate.”
Will the plans even make a difference?
Not especially if the Guardian’s analysis of the proposals is anything to go by.
Last night the newspaper reported that fewer than 10 MPs are likely to be affected by the proposed rule changes on second jobs, when considering a 10-20 hour limit on outside work as suggested by Trevelyan.
How has this damaged Boris Johnson?
It’s not every day that Johnson eats humble pie, but on Wednesday, the prime minister was served with a few doses of it.
A sign of the level of dissatisfaction felt by the party towards Johnson came in the form of uncharacteristically sparse Commons benches.
“The rebellion has clearly started,” the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford boomed.
Johnson told the Liaison Committee it had been a “total mistake” to conflate standards reform with the Paterson case.
“It was a total mistake not to see that Owen’s breach of the rules, the former member for North Shropshire’s breach of the rules, made any discussion about anything else impossible, and I totally accept that,” he said.
“The intention genuinely was not to exonerate anybody, the intention was to see whether there was some way in which, on a cross-party basis, we could improve the system.”
He added: “In retrospect it was obviously, obviously mistaken to think we could conflate the two things and do I regret that decision? Yes I certainly do.”
The PM then faced his own colleagues at the 1922, where reports say he admitted he “crashed the car into a ditch” in the row over standards.
Verdicts of the PM’s performance, and shared with the BBC, ranged from “weak” and “very flat”, with one source saying the PM was “like an old rock star in need of new material”.
For a prime minister accustomed to receiving high praise from his party — whether it be over winning the general election or getting Brexit done — it marked a dangerous moment some may not forget,