Why some Tory MPs remain determined to overhaul Parliament’s disciplinary process

13 Mar

It is, shall we say, difficult to credit John Bercow’s claim that he has been somehow stitched up by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The full report, which can be read online here, is damning.

Yet as we noted earlier this week, his claim that the disciplinary procedure is a ‘kangaroo court’ does echo the arguments put forward by Owen Paterson’s supporters back in November, when they decided to rig some explosives to the Government’s public standing with a fantastically ill-timed bid to change the rules on how MPs are investigated.

And whilst most involved will probably concede that the timing was abysmal – and may well have poisoned the well for any future reform effort – there are still MPs prepared (behind the scenes) to defend Andrea Leadsom’s amendment and what it was trying to do, and trying to find a way to bring forward reforms. Why?

Even her own attempt to justify the original move back in November (here is the video, here the Hansard) is dominated by other MPs asking variations on the theme of “why are you doing this now?”. But wade through that, and we get the following argument:

“…the question of whether our investigatory process should more closely reflect the laws of natural justice, where an accused Member can expect to have their own evidence taken into account, to put forward witnesses in their defence, to be interviewed early in the process and provide their own explanation and, vitally, to access an independent appeal process.”

According to those MPs still minded to support what Leadsom was trying to do, the root of the problem is that the way the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (as an institution, rather than Kathryn Stone as an individual) currently operates undermines the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), which Leadsom set up whilst Leader of the House and is meant to provide something like a proper HR complaints procedure.

Those advocating for the ICGS point out that, because it applies to everybody working on, or visiting, the parliamentary estate, it has the potential to create a uniform standard of accountability. The PCS, by contrast, applies only to MPs. Moreover, the ICGS employs specialist staff and logs more data about complaints, meaning it is better able to identify patterns of poor behaviour (or potentially malicious complaints), whereas the PCS is a lay individual with no legal background.

Some of the complaints raised by these MPs do seem legitimate. It seems strange, for example, that an MP wishing to appeal a PCS decision does so to the Committee on Standards, which as a select committee does not have compulsory attendance. This means that committee members could simply miss the evidence on which they’re supposed to judge an appeal. They also can’t have legal support.

Even stranger is the fact that once an appeal has been made, it falls to the PCS to advise the committee on how to assess the defence. From the outside, this looks a bit like having a prosecutor advise a jury (who may or may not have been actually present for important bits of the trial) on how to find the defendant.

However, MPs should be careful about pleading the case for reform on the grounds that the existing arrangements don’t mirror normal workplace procedures.

Yes, being forced to apologise to the House of Commons is not analogous to any corporate disciplinary procedure. But any system will have to reflect the unique role of MPs as elected representatives. They are not mere employees of the House, and their status necessarily means that they must have more leeway in certain areas than a normal employee might expect.

Such lassitude obviously doesn’t extend to bullying their staff. But any MP who refused unconscious bias training, or oppose the idea of having to sign up to a statement of principles, should be very careful about sabotaging their own claim to special status.

Nonetheless, one can at least see the case for a simultaneous review of the PCS and ICGS, not least to address concerns that they’re currently treading on each others’ toes. One MP put it that the former has started picking up the latter’s cases, serving to ‘gold-plate’ its punishments rather than policing a different class of behaviour. In theory, as originally envisioned the ICGS would have grown to cover normal HR matters – including sexual harassment and bullying – whilst the PCS covered behaviour specific to the role of MPs, such as lobbying and bringing Parliament into disrepute – although they concede that the ICGS has not grown into that role yet.

But given the abysmal handling of the issue last year, and the risk that any move now will just end up looking like a bid for vengeance, any such move will probably have to wait until at least the next Parliament. When you shoot yourself in the foot, proceeding at a crawl is sometimes the only option.

Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election in Bury South

23 Jan

This week, Guido Fawkes reminded us that Christian Wakeford, the Labour MP for Bury South, co-sponsored and voted for a private members bill in 2020 that would “enable the recall of Members of the House of Commons who voluntarily change their political party affiliation; and for connected purposes.” Wakeford’s Law would have caused a by-election to be triggered if, in a relevant constituency, a petition demanding it, gathered ten per cent of the eligible electors over a period of eight weeks.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe, spoke against the proposal – as he felt it didn’t go far enough:

“I am in favour of full recall—I prefer to avoid total recall—albeit on a threshold that must be high enough to avoid vexatious political activity. However, I would like to have full recall, by which I mean recall without conditions.”

Anyway, surely in the circumstances that have arisen, Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election. An opinion poll shows a big majority believing this should take place. I haven’t heard any BBC interviewers raise this interesting but unhelpful question with Wakeford or any of his fellow Labour politicians.

Yet surely it’s a subject that must have been discussed by Wakeford during the weeks of clandestine meetings with Labour representatives while plotting his defection. With the current climate, Labour should be well placed to win a by-election in Bury South.

So why do they not seem to relish the challenge? By-election campaigns cost money and Labour is reported to be “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Would the Bury South Constituency Labour Party select Wakeford as their candidate? By-elections, under Labour’s rules, do give power to Labour’s National Executive: “in the case of an emergency, it shall take whatever action that may be necessary to meet the situation.” Would imposing Wakeford be justified as an “emergency” on the basis that the CLP would not acquiesce otherwise? One for the lawyers to ponder, I suppose.

If such hurdles were overcome the by-election campaign might still prove problematic. Bury South has a large Jewish community.  Angela Epstein, one of its members, has written powerfully in the Independent about her sense of betrayal:

“As our new MP, Wakeford swiftly established himself as a sensitive and understanding supporter of a Jewish community still reeling from the Corbyn years. He understood what we had suffered. It makes his willingness to cross the floor even more unpalatable. Yes, Keir Starmer has shown credible and declared intent to stamp out antisemitism within his party. But equally this was a man who campaigned for Corbyn in 2019 and would have worked with him had he become prime minister. During his own leadership campaign Starmer was also reluctant to criticise his predecessor, since he remained popular among the party membership…

“Of course Wakeford’s defection isn’t just a stinging act of disloyalty for his Jewish constituents. Many residents of Bury South will have voted for the 38-year-old candidate as part of the Boris boom – keen to ensure that Labour, with its chaotic agenda of stirring class conflict, ruinous big state ideas and quasi Marxist politics, didn’t have a chance. And yet it hurts so much for Jewish people because we looked to Wakeford as our protector. An assured parliamentary voice who could stand up for this community.”

Labour’s continuing failure to deal with anti-semitism is demonstrated not far from Bury with the disturbing situation in Blackburn.

By signing up as a Labour Party member, Wakeford has undertaken to “accept and conform” to the Party’s principles – including that it is a “socialist” party. Thus far Wakeford has explained his switch to the Labour Party as being prompted by his antipathy to Dominic Cummings, Owen Paterson, and Downing Street drinks parties. But when did Wakeford convert to socialism? Presumably, it took place within the last year – as on January 18th 2021, he wrote:

“Labour – bunch of c****.”

Another puzzle is that a month ago Wakeford was among the 99 Conservative MPs who voted against the Plan B restrictions. Is it not a bit odd that he’s now switched to Labour, who complained the measures did not go far enough and imposed tighter restrictions in Wales? Wakeford might also face disobliging queries about his expenses with the revelation that he was in the top ten MPs for spending on travel and food costs charging the taxpayer £13,899 for this in the last financial year.

So one can see why Wakeford has evidently decided against a by-election. The question is whether it should be his decision. It is a wider question of political accountability. If MPs are sentenced to be imprisoned for more than 12 months they automatically have to stand down. That is reasonable. But in other cases, a recall mechanism should apply. (I would like to see it for Police and Crime Commissioners as well.) I suppose we could still have various standards committees and commissioners to carry out investigations and publish their findings. However, the power would be with the electorate.

Our politics is drifting towards politicians being too beholden to officialdom. The Electoral Commission imposes bureaucratic burdens on political parties while failing to robustly and impartially uphold the democratic process. Peers complained this week of a “sinister” threat to freedom of speech by the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. Supposedly we are eagerly waiting for a civil servant called Sue Gray to decide if the Prime Minister should be sacked.  Of course, she has no authority to do anything of the kind. She may give a verdict on whether the “gatherings” in the Downing Street gardens were within the official definition of work events allowed under the regulations – or were parties and broke the rules. Ministers and Shadow Ministers continuously take to the airwaves to speak of Gray with great reverence and assure us of their “high regard” for her. But it is the MPs who decide who is Prime Minister. We decide who the MPs are. Those fundamentals should be reasserted and strengthened. The retreat into the prissy obfuscation of politicians relying on officials for moral authority has gone too far. We need to take back control. Giving the people of Bury South their say would be a good start.

Stewart Jackson: A reshuffle that moved some of the Prime Minister’s critics into the Cabinet would be prudent

10 Jan

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The precipitous recent decline in the poll ratings of the Prime Minister and predictions of electoral doom are indicative of two enduring phenomena: that Boris Johnson is unique and, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair before him, dominates the political landscape.

Conservative MPs will largely sink or swim as a result of the electorate’s judgement of him. But there’s nothing new in these setbacks, and many Conservatives have little institutional memory, and perhaps little understanding, of the vicissitudes of modern politics.

The bien pensant liberal media classes and their cheerleaders such as Matthew Parris are loathe to concede it, but the Prime Minister is a historically significant figure. He not only led the movement (or at least the last throes of it) which resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union but, more fundamentally, built a mighty vote-winning electoral coalition founded on culture and community rather than class and capital.

What Johnson has had in spades is not just celebrity and chutzpah, but luck: inheriting a safe Commons seat in 2001 when the Tories had detoxifying work in progress; coming to power in London during a Conservative renaissance in the capital when the voters were sick of Ken Livingstone, and quitting the Cabinet after the Chequers plan in 2018 – to usurp the pitiful May interregnum and break the Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister’s greatest weakness is that he loves to be loved but, ironically, the more hysterical and cacophonous the shrieks of his critics, the stronger he becomes politically. To many Tory voters, all the usual suspects hate the Prime Minister – not least bcause they believe that he was and should be one of them.

However, he lacks a Praetorian Guard in Parliament who will walk through fire for him (even John Major had one) and the relationship that many Tory MPs have with the First Lord of the Treasury is cynical and transactional.

Covid restrictions, tax rises, self-inflicted wounds such as the Paterson affair, ethical issues, the fall out from reshuffles and recurring problems of miscommunication between Number Ten and Conservative MPs have all soured the glad confident morning of December 2019.

Johnson still has the power to forgive – and a reshuffle that pulled some hitherto irreconcilables and malcontents back into the tent would be prudent politics.

My erstwhile colleague at Crosby Textor and electoral wunderkind, Isaac Levido, has compared the post Covid scenario as like when the tide is at its lowest: all the Prime Minister’s problems lie like broken boats on the harbour floor.

Brexit and future relations with the EU, the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices, social care and the demographic timebomb, delivering the levelling up agenda and regional and national infrastructure, the busted local government funding and planning systems respectively, fighting the “Blob” in the delivery and reform of publc services and the endemic problem of uncontrolled immigration – all are moving up the list of voter salience.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1979, Thatcher wrestled with an inflation rate of 13 per cent and interest rates of 17 per cent. Even John Major, barely a year before besting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 General Election struggled with a jobless figure in the millions, 10 per cent interest rates and annual price rises of seven per cent – none of which Johnson will experience next year or, most likely, before the next general election.

The last two months will have actually helped Johnson and his most devoted supporters to shake free the contagion of complacency and “BoJo is teflon” exceptionalism: the Cabinet revolt against further Covid restrictions was  timely and good for efficient government. It means that in future, controversial policies are likely to be more routinely challenged, and will be improved upon by robust critique.  The Iraq War showed that Cabinet government by fan club very rarely ends well.

The Prime Minister’s most urgent strategic challenge is the same as that for Thatcher, Blair, Major and David Cameron – namely, how to reinvent his Government. For Brown and May – similar personalities – it was already too late. But such reworking was done in 1986 after Westland and in 1991 before the ERM catastrophe.

Most recently, David Cameron offers hope and inspiration. (Yes, I did write that sentence!) His clever decision to back a Private Members’ Bill to give effect to an EU Referendum in 2014 soothed the Eurosceptic fever in the Commons, and allowed the Conservatives to focus on their retail offering to voters at the 2015 election.

What also helped teamwork and discipline then was a narrow but consistent poll lead for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, and the prospect of a re-energised Opposition and a possible SNP-Labour colation government.

Today, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is off life support, is winning the right to debate, is more credible than during the last six years, and sp tighter polls will concentrate the minds of fractious Conservative MPs. For all that, though, Labour is miles from looking like a government in waiting and, frankly, if Wes Streeting is the answer, it’s a very silly question.

Specifically, the Government must rebuild its demoralised electoral coalition, keep the Right broadly united and it develop a positive case for the continuance of a Conservative Government – a compelling narrative and a legacy.

Support amongst Leave voters has slumped from 72 per cent to 56 per cent during the last six months, and Red Wall voters are disilusioned and impatient.

Currently, many Tory supporters in the South and South West, ABs and C1s who voted Remain, but were terrified of a Corbyn government, are angry about tax rises, general incompetence, planning, Tory Sleaze 2.0 (sic) and are shopping around for a protest vote.

Ironically, Theresa May’s entrance speech on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in July 2016 provides the Prime Minister’s own template for rejuvenation.

There’s more than enough time to deliver on a commitment to localism – a repeat of the successes in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. Michael Gove has the acumen and strategic nous to understand that building enough houses for young voters is now existential for the Conservative Party – after all, you can’t create capitalists who don’t and can’t own capital. And deregulation, tax cuts and demonstrable Brexit wins, such as freeports, must be front and centre in the Conservative story.

The voters don’t care for Singapore on the Thames, but they generally favour traditional Tory values.The Cabinet, for all the media criticism, still has condident and pesuasive voices, such as Steve Barclay, Grant Shapps and Ben Wallace.

Johnson still has aces to play: by historic standards, he’s still polling reasonably well, even if the May local elections will be brutal. And as public opinion in the wake of the Colston statue trial has shown, the War on Woke energises his base, and is a cultural wedge issue which drives many newer Conservative voters.

But such action will be hobbled without firm and radical action on immigration.Similarly, “barnacles must be scraped off the boat” – such as socially liberal tokenism in new legislation, tax rises to fund green initiatives and appointing political opponents to public bodies.

It surely isn’t too much to ask for a Conservative Government to be, well, fundamentally Conservative? Competent, compassionate and communitarian. Johnson has limited time to deliver but at least he now knows and comprehends more than ever, as a classical scholar, the immortal words of the Roman slave to his Emperor: “respice post te, mortalem esse memento” – “look around you, remember you are mortal.”

David Gauke: Truss rises – and Sunak runs towards early tax cuts in order to head her off

6 Dec

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Tax cuts are back in fashion. Having announced tax increases in his March Budget, and having agreed to the Prime Minister announcing further tax increases to fund higher health and social care expenditure in September, the Chancellor is taking every opportunity to let everyone know that he is in favour of lower taxes and plans to cut taxes before the next general election. All of this before any of the announced tax increases takes effect. What is going on?

Before examining what this tells us about what will happen next with fiscal policy, it is worth recalling how we got here.

At the time of the March Budget this year, it was evident that a fiscal tightening of some description was going to be necessary. Nothing needed to be done straight away, but it is politically easier to announce deficit-reducing measures earlier in a Parliament rather than later.

As for whether the tightening should be tax increases or spending cuts, tax increases were always the likely outcome. Years of spending restraint, pledges of high spending at the last general election and a change in the nature of Conservative support all suggested that the political reality was that taxes would go up. And so they did, with a freeze in thresholds for personal taxes and a substantial increase in corporation tax rates.

In September, the Prime Minister wanted to announce that he had solved the social care issue, the Health Secretary wanted more money for the NHS to cope with post-Covid pressures and the Chancellor – as a good fiscal conservative – wanted to ensure that any additional spending is paid for by higher taxes rather than letting borrowing take the strain.

A deal was done. The Prime Minister got his announcement, the Health Secretary got his money and the Chancellor not only got the tax increase necessary to pay for it, but he also got the Prime Minister to announce the increase in National Insurance Contributions.

We then come to the October Budget. The Chancellor had a bit more money to play with because the economy had grown faster in 2021 than had been expected ,and the damage done to the long term health of the economy by Covid had been downgraded. He had a choice between increasing spending, borrowing less and cutting taxes.

Cutting taxes was always the least likely option, because it would have been very strange to announce tax increases one month and then tax cuts the next. The real choice was between either spending the windfall or reducing borrowing, perhaps with an eye on tax cuts later in the Parliament. When it came down to it, more of the windfall went on spending than many expected.

With little tucked away for a rainy day, the possibility of future tax cuts became heavily dependent on the OBR once again downgrading their COVID scarring estimate (they remain relatively pessimistic on that compared to other forecasters).

There are, however, also significant downside risks for the economy. We do not yet know what will happen with the Omicron variant and there may be other variants in future. Triggering Article 16 in January (still possible although less likely than it was) would likely provoke a trade war and damage business confidence.

But even if there is an improved forecast from the OBR in 2022, it will be a forecast made in a period of uncertainty. The prudent course would not be to use any upside sum to either cut taxes or increase spending.

This suggests that the plan earlier this autumn was that 2022 should be a fiscally boring year. There might be some revenue neutral tax reforms but, in terms of the balance between tax and spend, the big decisions were made in 2021. The plan was to implement the announced tax increases, hold the line on additional spending bids and hope for some good news that will permit some tax cuts in 2023.

Politics has, however, intervened.

The response to the increases in NICs announced in September was relatively muted, but the October Budget landed remarkably badly with the Daily Telegraph and Spectator and a fair few Conservative MPs. Belatedly, there is a recognition that this was not a small state government. Shortly afterwards, in a separate development, Boris Johnson blundered over the Owen Paterson case and the Peppa Pig speech, and his personal ratings tumbled.

All of this has left the Prime Minister with a bigger party management issue than a public opinion issue. The Conservatives remain, at worst, level-pegging with Labour, and the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election result was reassuringly dull. The public has not reacted strongly against the tax rises, but it looks as if the wider Conservative movement has.

To gauge the mood amongst Conservative activists, it is always instructive to look at the ConservativeHome ratings. The Prime Minister is struggling, and the Paterson affair has contributed to that (as the unfortunate Mark Spencer’s rating demonstrates), but the fall in the Chancellor’s rating suggestions a reaction against the tax increases. He is no longer the heir-apparent.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss – associated with lower taxes – continues to ride high and is on (tank) manoeuvres. It was also striking how Lord Frost – previously seen as something of a political creature of the Prime Minister’s – has asserted his independence by declaring his enthusiasm for lower taxes. He sits in second place in the league table.

Let us fast-forward to some point next year when the Budget is about to be delivered. Imagine the circumstances where Conservative MPs and activists are feeling a bit despondent because “this isn’t a proper Conservative government”; voters are feeling the pinch as living standards fall and theTelegraph (Boris Johnson’s “real boss” according to Dominic Cummings) is campaigning for tax cuts; and the Foreign Secretary lets it be known that she thinks lower taxes would unleash this country’s entrepreneurial spirits. How do we think the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will react?

I am going to hazard a guess, and suggest that they will both want tax cuts. Fiscal conservatives will point out that having decided to spend a lot of money (not to mention pursuing a growth-damaging European policy), the country might not be able to afford tax cuts, that there is the small matter of complying with the fiscal rules and that demographic pressures in the 2030s suggest that the long-term trajectory is higher taxes.

I think one could always have been confident that this is the sort of defeatist doom-mongering up with which the Prime Minister would not put. These are certainly not persuasive arguments if they imperil his position in Number 10.

The Chancellor might have been more torn. He is a fiscal conservative, and knows that Chancellors are often judged on how responsibly they act. But he is also naturally sympathetic to lower taxes and conscious of his own place (current and future) in the party, with a Prime Minister willing to be ruthless to get his own way. On the basis of the briefings currently coming out of Number 11, the Chancellor looks like he will be a tax cutter.

Tax cuts as early as 2022 might not be affordable, coherent or wise but there is definitely a scenario in which they happen regardless. If Number 10 and 11 are united in panic, political expediency will trump fiscal responsibility at the next Budget.

Judith Barnes: Another fine standards mess – at the City of London Corporation

6 Dec

Judith Barnes was a co-opted member of the City of London Corporation’s Standards Committee until the Corporation abolished the Standards Committee earlier this year.

The government is not the only culprit when it comes to undermining standards in public life. The City of London Corporation paved the way, though without, unfortunately, the U-turn forced on the government by resistance in Parliament and the press. The sorry saga of the Corporation’s tussle over standards, detailed in a damning account by Lord Lisvane in his review of governance at the Corporation, may provide some useful pointers for Parliament in the fallout from the Owen Paterson affair.

The trouble started back in 2016 when, for the first time, a complaint about the conduct of a Member reached a hearing before the Corporation’s Standards Committee. The Committee ruled that he had breached the Corporation’s Code of Conduct. This caused consternation among the body of Members, who were particularly exercised by the iniquity of the Standards Committee in naming the Member in question in its annual report. It prompted a review by a QC who recommended a right of appeal (sound familiar?) to a committee of Members independent of the Standards Committee.

This did little to reconcile Members to the standards regime. When the same Member was found to have breached the Code of Conduct again, the new appeals committee dismissed his appeal. Members still refused to implement the proposed sanction (to suspend him from the new appeals committee, ironically).

By then, a head of steam was building to abolish the Standards Committee and outsource rulings on the conduct of Members. The Corporation turned to Lord Lisvane for a solution. Having concluded that Members were incapable of policing themselves, he recommended that the Corporation set up an independent panel to adjudicate on complaints about Members’ conduct. For legal reasons, determinations by the panel would need to be endorsed by the Corporation so, crucially, he said that any determination by the independent panel on a breach of the Code of Conduct, and recommended sanction, would need to be decided by Members without debate.

Predictably, Members, who had made great play of not wanting to be judged by their peers, then insisted on having some Members on the ‘independent’ panel when it considered appeals (to provide ‘internal context’ apparently). They threw out the need for a decision without debate which was Lord Lisvane’s attempt to put a stop to the Corporation’s repeated resistance to determinations on Members’ conduct. The upshot is that Members, who could not overturn determinations when they came from the Standards/Appeals Committees (only sanctions), are now at liberty to override any determination by the independent panel.

Events at the Corporation suggest improving the system can only do so much. Once there are appropriate safeguards in place, such as a right of appeal, an independent element, and the right procedures, elected members – at national or local level – need to recognise that verdicts delivered in accordance with the system will in the normal course merit support.

The rules governing conduct have to be right of course. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently decided to introduce a requirement for holders of public office to treat others with respect. Although at first glance this would appear uncontroversial, experience at the Corporation suggests it has its dangers. Along with the campaign to abolish the Standards Committee, there was a push to give Members a blanket dispensation for their term of office to speak and vote on local ward matters in which they had a financial interest, unless the matter in question affected the Member ‘uniquely or more than any of their constituents’.

One of the Members who applied for this dispensation owned his flat with his wife. In my capacity as a co-opted member of the Standards Committee, I pointed out by way of hypothetical example that, if he and his wife stood to profit from a planning application that benefitted no-one else in his ward, he would be able to vote for it.

He promptly complained that I was in breach of the Code of Conduct on the basis that I had shown a ‘lack of respect’, by slurring him and his wife as ‘hypothetical criminals’, and was ‘wrong’ (who knew being ‘wrong’ amounted to misconduct?). The second limb of this complaint was blown out of the water by a leading QC’s opinion which made it clear in no uncertain terms that such a dispensation would be unlawful. Nothing daunted, the Corporation, by some mental contortion that they have yet to explain, nevertheless concluded that my use of a hypothetical example to explain my objection to granting this unlawful dispensation could indeed constitute a ‘lack of respect’ and even ‘bring my office or authority into disrepute’.

The concept of ‘respect’ is all too open to abuse in this way. In the current climate it risks importing ‘cancel culture’ into political debate. That would undermine not only standards, but democracy itself.

Peter Franklin: Our classicist Prime Minister must be a Hercules – and clear out Parliament’s Augean stables

22 Nov

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

Boris Johnson’s passion for the classics is well known. But unlike Emmanuel Macron, who once spoke about the need for a “Jupiterian” presidency, I don’t think that our Prime Minister has ever likened himself to a figure from Greco-Roman myth. The closest he ever came was some rather contrived wordplay between between “Boris” and “Boreas”, god of the north wind.

However, there is one character he could be compared with — and that is Hercules (or Heracles if you prefer). Johnson may not be as physically impressive as the muscle-bound hero, but as Prime Minister he’s tackled a series of tasks that can only be described as Herculean: getting Brexit done; beating back Covid (both nationally and personally); leading the world on climate change; levelling-up the North. Whether of not one considers Johnson to be a great man, there’s no doubting the greatness of the challenges he’s faced.

Hercules is famed for undertaking twelve labours. Most of these involved killing or capturing some kind of fabulous beast — from the multi-headed Hydra to the flesh-eating Mares of Diomedes.

However, his fifth labour stands out from all the others. That’s because it appears to be so mundane. All it involved was cleaning out some stables. Not exactly the stuff of legend. Except that these were the stables of King Augeus. They housed 3,000 animals — and hadn’t been cleaned out for 30 years. Even worse, Hercules had just one day to complete the task. So what at first sight looks like the least dangerous of all his labours came closest to defeating him.

Boris ought to pay close attention to this tale because he has his own Augean stables to clean out: the Houses of Parliament. In the space of a few weeks, “sleaze” has done more damage to his poll ratings that all his mistakes on Brexit, Covid and the economy put together.

As with the original Augean stables, this almighty mess is the result of years of neglect — for which multiple Prime Ministers are to blame. It is Johnson’s misfortune that matters have reached crisis point on his watch. Then again, he made his own bad luck by handling the Owen Paterson affair so ineptly. In any case, he owns the sleaze issue now. Unless he can make it go away, it has the potential to bury him.

Of course, by international standards, this is a molehill – not a mountain of political ordure. We’re not talking about criminal corruption here, but the interpretation of rules governing self-imposed standards in public life. However, that’s why this sorry episode is so infuriating: it was all so avoidable.

There should never have been any confusion over the rules on lobbying. There’s an obvious problem with a serving MP being paid by private interests to do what he or she is elected to do in the public interest.

So the rules should have been clear — absolutely no political consultancy work under any circumstances. If they had been clear, then Paterson would still be an MP today.

The Government’s approach — to clear up the mess only after someone’s stepped in it — isn’t going to wash. There are just too many other piles lying in wait. In fact, piles upon piles, because all of these issues raise further issues. As our Editor explains here, the Prime Minister finds himself caught between two factions of his Parliamentary party — the “Red Wallers” and the “Blue Jobbers” — over the wider question of MPs having second jobs.

This in turn leads to an even wider question — what are MPs for? — which has also been left unresolved for too long. And it doesn’t stop with the House of Commons either. Constitutionally, the House of Lords is a half-finished building site abandoned by a long-defunct firm of cowboy builders (i.e. New Labour). It’s a hopelessly confused situation in which the combination of politics, patronage, public standards and money is bound to generate further problems.

And that’s the trouble with the Government’s minimalist approach to cleaning out the Augean Stables. Making very specific changes in response to a particular scandal opens you up to the charge of having done too little too late when the next one happens.

The alternative is to get out in front of the issue — and deal with the whole mess before it buries you.

The question that Boris should ask himself is this: what would Hercules do? I’m assuming he already knows the answer. Faced with the impossible task of shovelling so much, er, material in the space of one day, Hercules took radical action. He diverted the course of the rivers Alpheus and Peneus so that they flowed through the stables and literally washed the problem away. Job done.

The two cleansing forces that Boris Johnson must harness are constitutional reform and party reform. For a start, it’s time to stop making excuses for the House of Lords. It should either be turned into a properly democratic chamber or abolished.

As for the House of Commons, let’s recognise the reality of what it means to be an MP these days. The old model of the gentleman legislator is just that — a relic of the past. With billions about to be spent on renovating the physical fabric of the Palace of Westminster, we need to update its working practices too.

That’s both for the good of the constitution and the Conservative Party. The current disparity between some Tory MPs straining every sinew to hold on to the Red Wall while others busy themselves with lucrative outside employments, isn’t just unfair: it is also electorally unsustainable. The result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election — plus the last set of local elections — is a warning that the party cannot take its southern heartlands for granted either.

In this time of political realignment, every Conservative-held seat should be regarded as marginal. Thus every Tory MP needs to make a full-time commitment to their parliamentary and governmental duties. This, by happy coincidence, would also mean that the vexed issue of second jobs would be rendered irrelevant.

As we’re now seeing with the rules on lobbying, reform is a matter of when not if. The Government can either be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century — allowing the opposition to extract every ounce of partisan advantage — or it can take the initiative and lead the process of change.

It is of course incumbent on any Conservative to take care with the constitution— but that is more easily achieved when one is in charge of the course of events, not swept along by them.

So go on, Boris — be a hero.

David Gauke: Oomph and optimism don’t always vanquish the doomsters and gloomsters

22 Nov

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Being in Government is fabulous. You get to decide what to do and then can implement those decisions, making (what you hope) is a positive difference to large numbers of people. It is what politics should be all about.

This power is not, of course, unqualified. I was fortunate to have nine years as a Minister but, throughout that period, the Governments in which I served faced significant Parliamentary constraints (in turn, a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a small majority and finally a minority Government) as well as a precarious fiscal situation, especially in the early years. We were not always able to do what we wanted.

You could have been forgiven in thinking that all this was in the past. Boris Johnson won a very comfortable majority in 2019, and he has always been clear that “austerity” was behind us. This was a “Take Back Control” Government that was going to deliver on the people’s priorities. Enough of the stalemates and gridlocks, the dither and delay. Now it was time to get things done.

What the last three weeks has shown, however, is that the limits on the powers of government have not gone away. All of a sudden, there are six instances when the constraints have become very visible.

First, the Government’s current travails began with the woeful handling of the Paterson affair, about which I wrote on this site a fortnight ago. The Parliamentary manoeuvre which it attempted – establishing a new cross-party committee – required other parties to participate.

Sensibly (and entirely predictably), the other parties refused to participate, leaving the Government with a problem. In addition, the whole proposal was so obviously objectionable that there was a sizeable Parliamentary revolt from the Conservative backbenchers, with the Government’s majority reduced to just under 20. These two Parliamentary factors meant that the Government had to abandon its approach.

Fiscal considerations have played a role in the second third cases which emerged last week. The Government’s plans for rail and, in particular, the abandonment of the eastern leg of HS2 and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail has provoked much opposition.

As Tim Pitt, a former Treasury Special Adviser, has pointed out, capital spending for the forthcoming years is remarkably high by historic standards, but the Government still has to make choices. Ministers have reached the conclusion that there are better ways of spending this money than delivering on their promises on these two projects.

This might be a reasonable assessment (I questioned the business case for the eastern leg of HS2 when I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury), but the problem is that these promises had been made and reiterated by the Prime Minister.

The row over social care is also tricky. Even after the announcement of an increase in National Insurance Contributions (which will become the Health and Social Care Levy), there are still choices to be made, and the Government has chosen to take a tougher approach to the means test than expected.

Personally, I think the Government has got its priorities wrong on social care (I believe that we should ask more from those with large estates who face social care costs), but any government has to make choices. Again, the problem is that the new approach falls below expectations.

In both cases, the Government cannot prioritise everything (even if it has a tendency to promise everything). Tough choices have to be made.

Of growing political salience is our fourth example: migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. This is the sort of thing that was supposed to stop with Brexit, apparently (for reasons that have never been clear), and it leaves the Government unusually vulnerable to an attack from the Right.

What could be more damaging to it is the sense of powerlessness. It is not obvious that the Government knows what to do about the problem, hence we have a different story each day as to what could be done (including processing asylum applications in Albania, which came as a surprise to the Albanians).

No Government could find an easy solution to this issue. Some might try building a close and co-operative relationship with the French; this Government tries haranguing them instead. It is not clear that this is working.

Whilst we are discussing diplomacy, the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol demonstrate that this Government does not always get what it wants (even in the oven-ready deal that it put at the heart of its general election campaign and which it has ever since tried to rewrite), and this constitutes the fifth case.

By the looks of it, the Government is backing away from triggering Article 16, which is just as well. This would have resulted in a trade war which would have disproportionately damaged the UK economy and left us isolated from the EU and US. After a lot of huffing and puffing, the Government looks as if the role of the European Court of Justice is not quite so central, after all.

The sixth and final example is the non-appointment of Paul Dacre as chair of Ofcom. Having clearly encouraged him to apply, refused to accept his rejection by the interview panel but changed the remit of the role to increase the chance of him being viewed as appointable, the Government went to great lengths to get their man.

Dacre, however, has declared that he has had enough and withdrawn his application, complaining about how someone “from the private sector who, God forbid, has convictions” was never going to be accepted by the civil service “Blob”.

As it happens, the original interview panel was predominantly made up of people from the private sector. and it would be entirely reasonable if they concluded that Dacre’s strong “convictions” sat uneasily with chairing a regulator that holds the ring on broadcasters’ bias. An independent public appointments regime is a necessary check and balance and, ultimately, the system worked as it should have done.

Bring these cases together and a pattern emerges. The Government wanted to protect Owen Paterson, build the eastern leg of HS2 and the cross-Pennine rail line, ensure no one has to sell their house to pay for social care, stop migrants arriving here in small boats, remove the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, and appoint Paul Dacre as Chair of Ofcom. For one reason or another, it is not able to do any of those things.

Does this reveal that the Government is close to collapse? No, it does not. Governments do not always get their way and, as I have written elsewhere, I think the great likelihood is that Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives into the next election (and, as it happens, I think he will probably win it).

To some extent, this is all just reality reasserting itself. Being in Government is fabulous, but it is also hard. It involves trade-offs and prioritisation and compromise. Not every problem is solvable; not every call can be answered. You do not always get your way.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that much of his considerable voter appeal has been to dismiss the pettifogging concerns of the doomsters and gloomsters. Complexity is for wimps. So-called problems are merely trivialities that can be overcome with a bit of oomph and optimism.

This certainly raises expectations. As these six recent examples demonstrate, however, it does not reflect the realities of governing. Eventually, reality – whether political, economic or diplomatic – prevails.

Interview with Tobias Ellwood: Johnson lacks “serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine”

11 Nov

Boris Johnson does not have the advisers he needs at Number 10, has exposed himself to comparison with the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, and is “losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do”.

These are among the lessons drawn by Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, from last week’s debacle on Commons Standards, when Tory MPs were whipped to vote in support of a course of action which only hours later the Government abandoned.

Ellwood, who abstained in that vote, has sat for Bournemouth East since 2005. He protests at the sacking of Robert Buckland in the last Cabinet reshuffle, and laments that the Government is failing to use the talents of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, and indeed has no idea how to set about doing so.

As a specialist in international relations, Ellwood is deeply worried by the lack of resolve shown by the United States in Afghanistan, and by the West’s lack of strategy in the face of Russia and China, but sees opportunities for British leadership.

He warns against allowing the argument over the Northern Ireland Protocol to become a running sore which prevents the much needed defence co-operation between Britain and France:

“There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.”

ConHome: “In your Sun on Sunday piece last weekend you wrote,

‘the Government thought it acceptable to overrule the punishment [of Owen Paterson] and rewrite the rules. If this happened in Poland or Hungary, we would not be surprised. But in Britain?’

“Orban is corrupting Hungarian government and society. Is that an apt comparison to make about Boris Johnson and the Government?”

Ellwood: “It’s a warning. It’s to say, ‘Is this who we want to be compared to?’ That itself can’t be a good thing. In that article I mention a couple of times ‘the mother of Parliaments’, how proud we are of the journey we’ve taken over centuries.

“But that journey of advancement has actually almost stopped. We’ve refused to look at further ways we can continue that journey on.”

ConHome: “What are the most dangerous things Number 10 is doing?”

Ellwood: “It’s losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do. Clearly there was something wrong with this decision. You yourself pointed that out.

“So our loyalty was tested, 250 of my colleagues actually held their noses and walked through those lobbies because they somehow assumed it was in the interests of the party, and clearly it wasn’t.

“So two questions there. Why, first of all, did the executive think they could do this?

“And secondly why weren’t more of my colleagues willing to stand up and say ‘No, this is actually wrong’?

“To give them their due, I can’t actually find a single Member of Parliament who did not express views to the Whips’ Office that this was completely wrong.

“So somehow something went wrong with the reporting mechanism to Number 10, to say ‘Don’t pursue this route’.”

ConHome: “This is part of a wider pattern?”

Ellwood: “That’s the concern I have. It’s part of a wider pattern, of us veering away from sound policy, of explaining to the British people what needs to happen, the difficult decisions.

“And two great examples where you could win over the public, actually I can think of three.

“Firstly to do with Trump and Afghanistan. Much easier to say ‘Bring troops home’ – that’s a vote winner – rather than explaining to the American people why keeping 2,500 troops there is actually in our longer-term interest strategically.

“Bringing troops home shows success, job done. Clearly it’s more complicated to explain to the electorate that keeping troops there, in that neck of the woods, between Russia, Iran, China, not a bad bit of real estate to keep control of, it will take time though, it’s going to take much more patience than we’re currently showing at the moment.

“That’s one example. The other one is DfID, the cuts in that. You explain to the British people, as has been done since that cut was made, that actually we lose leverage, we get replaced by Russia and China with their projects, or extremism then fills in, because of us pulling out.

“The British people would actually say, ‘Well, that’s wisely spent.’ But if you sell to the British people, ‘We’re going to take that money and we’re going to slide it to Red Wall seats,’ well which is going to win?

“Now ultimately the needle has moved on the support for DfID funding, because it’s actually part of our DNA, it’s what we do on the international stage.

“It’s a wiser, more cognitive approach to taking the electorate with you. It’s more complicated, it’s more taxing, it’s not simple, it’s not banner bumper stickers or banner headlines, but it’s what we should be doing.”

ConHome: “You also wrote that ‘at every reshuffle, MPs who have become experts in their fields are demoted or sidelined in favour of the uber-loyal.’ Who were you thinking of?”

Ellwood: “I mentioned Robert Buckland. Everybody was astonished by this decision. Everybody expected him to become potentially Home Secretary or certainly to stay in Cabinet.

“Go back to balance if you like of the spectrum within our party, he’s seen as a moderate, a sound voice, willing not just to toe the party line but occasionally to add another dimension to it.

“That’s just one of many examples. I’ll just mention another. A Cabinet member, now doing brilliantly, but it took 11 years to get there. What a lot of patience you have to go through. How many sycophantic, underarm-bowling questions do you have to ask?

“What often happens is that people lose patience with the machine itself.”

ConHome: “Are we not recruiting enough high-grade candidates? Because this will put good people off.”

Ellwood: “It will put good people off. I won’t make a judgment about not recruiting them, because I think we’ve got some really good talent on our backbenches.

“But they’re not utilised. And the difference between this new intake that’s just come in, particularly as we suddenly got all these Red Wall seats, so these are people who are running businesses, they’re doing, you know, exciting things.

“If they are not utilised, you know, they’ve come in to be part of politics, to represent their constituents, but to affect the political agenda.

“And if all they’re doing for years is just ask simplistic questions which are just handed out by the Whips’ Office, that’s not really utilising their strengths that they bring to the Chamber.

“So what I’m suggesting is this, which I think there would be a lot of appetite for. You come in and you’re invited to suggest a spectrum of interest for your career.

“It might be local government, it might be health and social services, it might be education, it might be science, it could be in my case international affairs.

“And within that spectrum there are things that you could do. Not necessarily being a minister, but certainly things which will allow you to advance and progress with an interest, and to influence policy.

“But no. There is no HR. There is no managing of anybody’s career whatsoever.

“So you end up, and this leads into the very topical debate at the moment, with people finding outside interests, and that also affects how this place looks.”

ConHome: “Were you thinking of yourself? You’re an expert in your field, you were a minister, you’re now not a minister.”

Ellwood: “No, not at all, because being on a committee is another great way in which you can affect the agenda, hold Government to account, and come up with ideas.

“And certainly being the chair of that. If you are a round peg in a round hole you are very, very lucky indeed.”

ConHome: “Can Johnson revive his Government, though. He’s just had a reshuffle. But can he revive it without sweeping changes in his team, both his team in Cabinet and in Downing Street, to take more account of what the backbenchers are now thinking and saying?”

Ellwood: “I think we do lack some serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine. It’s a tough gig, but you need to have your political antennae about what does and doesn’t work.

“Now on the actual team of the reshuffle, it’s that wider picture of making sure you take advantage of the skill sets that you actually have.”

ConHome: “Fundamentally, do you have confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership?”

Ellwood: “I worked for Boris Johnson in the FCO, and he brings an element of energy and vibrancy to the party which I’ve not seen for a long time.

“And in today’s cut and thrust of 24-hour news that’s actually important, that he’s actually inspired a lot of people to vote Conservative, in a way that many other leaders have actually failed to do.

“But you need to be supported then by genuine strategy, when it comes to policy formation. For me there’s a gap in the market in the area I’m particularly interested in. What is Britain’s place in the world? What does global Britain mean?

“There is a leadership role, I think, that the world is calling out for.

“He needs the team around him to support the energy he provides.”

ConHome: “After David Amess was murdered, you said that MPs should pause holding face to face surgeries. Do you think that pause should now cease, and if not, when should it cease?”

Ellwood: “I look from a security and defence perspective. Clearly the situation has changed, we can reassess, and everybody has taken stock of their own situation, so it’s right that we can then downgrade or reassess the situation.”

ConHome: “You’ve been a soldier, and soldiers have to confront danger and death, but you’ve had two very personal encounters with it.

“You wrote last weekend about shaking hands with the Taliban, who were harbouring the group who killed your brother. What effect did his murder have on the way you think about security?”

Ellwood: “I don’t go past a barrier now outside the gates here without thinking about the wider security environment. I think the sadness of the 9/11 anniversary with all those documentaries we saw again – we are no better at tackling extremism, if we’re honest about it.

“We’re no better at dealing with the ideology that encourages somebody to put on a suicide vest to kill themselves, to kill westerners in the belief that they’re going to be rewarded with a place in paradise.

“And until we deal with that – and that’s not for us so much to deal with the interpretation of the Koran, that’s actually a wider theological challenge for the Islamic world to deal with too, but until we’ve done that then I’m afraid ISIS-K, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda, they will continue to be able to recruit.”

ConHome: “You also fought to save the life of PC Palmer.”

Ellwood: “That happened in 2017, it was a reminder again. Bali was 2002, 9/11 2001, David Amess 2021. There is a correlation between all those events, which link myself and indeed other people in our community together, and shows you what an enormous challenge still exists.

“We’ve now absented ourselves from Afghanistan, handing the country back to the very insurgents that we went in to defeat. When I met the Taliban it was very, very clear why they are trying to still pursue a ruthless, quite a tough interpretation of Sharia law, because if they didn’t they would actually haemorrhage more people to ISIS-K.”

ConHome: “You’re an interventionist, both for security reasons and for moral reasons: you’re helping to spread and sustain liberal democratic values by intervening.

“Do you feel that you’re part of a beleaguered minority now – that the trend here in Britain as in America has been to withdraw, to try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world?”

Ellwood: “We’re feeling very, very bruised. It’s been provoked by Covid as well, our retreat from global exposure, becoming more isolated, more protectionist.

“Populism also is on the rise – why should we have a responsibility for what’s going on abroad? Let’s look after ourselves. Times are tough here.

“From where I sit, we’ve got a bumpy decade ahead. There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.

“On top of that you’ve got three other factors. Climate change, which is going to bring its own scale of problems. Biblical movements of people that are displaced.

“Advances in technology that then allow non-state actors to incite real harm onto communities. And the rise of extremism.

“And if Russia wants to harm Britain, it can just play with the gas taps and watch the prices ripple through and cause problems.

“Look how that one ship caught in the Suez Canal caused problems across the world. I tried to get my lawn mower repaired the other day, and they couldn’t get the parts. They said, ‘You take your choice, it’s either Covid, Brexit or it’s that Suez Canal blockage.’

“How easy it is to cause harm to economies using non-military means.

“And there’s a gap in the market for international leadership. We’ve seen America retreat slightly, give up essentially in Afghanistan. This was the biggest military alliance arguably ever formed and we were defeated by an insurgency armed with AK-47s and RPGs, and we just decided to go home.

“So where is America’s commitment? If they’re not going to step up, we had to do it a couple of times in the last century. Different circumstances, I recognise that.”

ConHome: “What about NATO?”

Ellwood: “I was in Norfolk, Virginia only two weeks ago, headquarters for NATO in the US, scratching their heads, what is their purpose?

“We don’t do out of area operations any more. So there is a purpose, you go to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, they’ll say absolutely, NATO is critical. NATO itself will retreat to what it knows best, dealing with the old Cold War-esque challenges.

“Putin has a strategy. President Xi has a clear strategy on the international stage. The West lacks one. We don’t have a strategy. We have an attitude towards China, towards Russia, but we don’t have a strategy.

“And again, this is Britain, going back to Boris Johnson and what Britain can actually do, this is where we normally have an insight and an understanding, a means, a desire to help shape the world.”

ConHome: “Our relationship with France is currently extremely bad. We and the French are the two military powers in Europe. How bad is it and what should we do about it?”

Ellwood: “So this is a great example of us enjoying an old rivalry that goes back centuries. What we forget is that as we fail to reconcile our differences with continental Europe, our adversaries are enjoying this blue-on-blue, which is essentially what it is.

“We and the French are not working together to recognise what Russia is doing in the Arctic, what China is doing in the South China Sea, and AUKUS was a great illustration of how things could have been done better.

“Absolutely right for Australia to move from diesel electric to something better, you’re offered a Ford Focus and suddenly you see a Ferrari, which one are you going to take?

“You’re going to go for the upgrade nuclear deal, nuclear powered, so France should accept that. But if you want a strategy to deal with the South China Sea, finally standing up to what they’re doing in that neck of the woods, which is pretty concerning, then include Japan, India, include the United States, Britain and France, and that’s the quad that should be invited, allowing AUKUS to be a procurement process.”

ConHome: “If we’re going to have a better relationship with the French, is that really consistent, given the French view of themselves as one of the guardians of the integrity of the EU, with moving Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol?”

Ellwood: “You then move into a very awkward space. This was always going to be a problem. I served in Northern Ireland and it’s not until you go there that you realise how critical trade of the entire island is in keeping the peace and helping both economies.

“We need to make sure we solve this, because it’s turning into a sore, which is then used by other countries to prevent us drawing a line and finally moving forward and advancing, where we don’t then say I’m a Brexiteer or I’m this, but this is the norm.

“We are still in transition, I’m afraid. And as long as that is the case, it will poison discussion on other, bigger issues, such as our reflections on international security that we need to be having with our continental partners.”

Daniel Hannan: Proposals to restrict MPs’ outside work run up against the same problem. What are good and bad jobs?

10 Nov

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

When the epidemic hit, Maria Caulfield didn’t hang around. The good-natured Tory whip swapped her parliamentary attire for scrubs and rushed to help on the Covid ward at the Royal Marsden. It was the state of hospitals in Sussex that had brought her into politics in the first place and, after being elected as the MP for Lewes in 2015, she carried on putting in shifts as an NHS nurse.

Does anyone think that the country would be better off if Caulfield had had to give up nursing on being elected? I don’t just mean that it is handy to have an extra nurse (though it is). I mean that Parliament is enhanced by her front-line perspective. She is like one of those uniformed MPs one sees in images from 1940 making a last contribution before being deployed.

Of course, in their day, it never occurred to anyone to complain about MPs having “second jobs”. Indeed, few people thought of being an MP as a job. Rather, being elected to Parliament was thought to confer a privilege (speaking in the supreme counsels of our nation) with commensurate responsibility (representing everyone else).

The professionalisation of politics is a recent phenomenon. Well into the 1970s, we still cherished the idea of citizen-legislators bringing outside interests to the table. It was in the late 20th century that attitudes began to shift. Some MPs – often Liberal Democrats – made a big deal of promising “to work full time for you”. Parliamentary salaries rose. Then, starting in 1995, MPs began to be invigilated by various committees rather than, as had been the case for the previous seven centuries, held to account by their constituents. Before long, keeping your hand it as a lecturer or solicitor became known, at least in newspapers, as “moonlighting”.

Has the quality of our MPs materially improved in consequence? The country is conflicted on the issue of outside work, torn between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, voters think that (as Labour’s Jon Trickett put it on Monday) “being an MP is a full time job: if you’re doing it properly you wouldn’t have time to be doing a second job”; on the other, they complain that we have “too many career politicians”.

It is the second impulse that is correct, as can be easily enough demonstrated. Easily enough, because lots of MPs hold down other jobs in a way that doesn’t bother anyone, even Jon Trickett. That is, they serve as ministers. Being a minister is far more time-consuming than being a barrister or serving on a company board. It also involves an inescapable conflict of interest, since the role of a minister is to exercise state power and the role of an MP is to constrain it.

You might say that we should make an exception for ministers. Fine, but you have conceded the principle that an MP is capable of holding down a full-time job. All you’re doing is privileging a particular kind of job, thereby making MPs more dependent on the state and less in touch with the private sector.

All proposals to restrict outside work run up against the same problem, namely the presumption that there are “good” jobs and “bad” jobs. You might think that it’s fine to work as a nurse or an army reservist or a minister, but not as a consultant. But who gets to decide, and what basis?

On Monday, The Guardian listed 30 MPs who would be affected by a ban on consultancies. Among them was Labour’s Khalid Mahmoud, who is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, working on Islamist extremism. Again, does anyone seriously think the world would be a better place if Khalid, who was Britain’s sole Muslim MP for a time, in which role he served as a level-headed representative for his co-religionists from around the country, was not allowed to put that experience to good use?

The reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to ban, not the holding of any particular job, but the lobbying of Parliament on behalf of outside paymasters. And you know what? That is precisely what we do. Pretty much everything that could be written about l’affaire Paterson has been written.

But, whatever view you take, one thing is undeniable: we enforce the ban on paid advocacy. You can argue that Paterson was harshly treated given that he believed he was behaving correctly and made no effort to hide his actions. Or you can argue that that’s hard cheese and dura lex sed lex and so forth. What you can’t argue is that we show the slightest tolerance for paid lobbying by MPs.

Sadly, that distinction is being lost as, from a combination of opportunism, populism and envy, commentators and even some MPs deliberately give the impression that private sector work per se is discreditable. It is not a new phenomenon. The increasing intolerance for outside jobs was one of the factors that drove the editor of this website out of Parliament – not because he was impacted personally, but because he foresaw that it would lead to a decline in the quality of MPs.

You can agree or disagree with him. My view, for what it’s worth, is influenced by my having become a working peer in February. There are few arguments in favour of how members of the House of Lords are appointed; but there are plenty in favour of how they are remunerated. Peers are not paid a salary (though they get a per diem allowance), but are instead expected to have real-world jobs.

There are various elected chambers around the world, from Texas to Switzerland, where something along these lines pertains – that is, where legislators are given some compensation in recognition of their time, but expected to carry on with whatever they were already doing. They share the ups and downs of the economy and, as a bonus, they spend less time sitting, leading to fewer laws and so to higher growth.

I accept that we are unlikely to replicate (or, more correctly, return to) that approach. But let’s not make matters even worse. Instead of complaining about “second jobs”, let’s treat being an MP as your second job and bring back citizen-legislators.

‘The cost… has been catastrophic.’ Paterson’s statement on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ inquiry.

26 Oct

Media Statement from Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP
Tuesday 16th October 2021

  • The process I have been subject to does not comply with natural justice
  • I raised very serious issues i.e., the fact that milk and ham were contaminated with carcinogenic prohibited substances and that milk contained residues that cause AMR, which is predicted to be a major cause of worldwide death by 2050 – lives will have been saved
  • No proper investigation was undertaken by the Commissioner or the Committee
  • I was pronounced guilty by the Commissioner without being spoken to and the 17 witnesses who came forward to support me were also not spoken to and their written evidence ignored
  • Unchallenged witness evidence must be accepted within any fair process 
  • The Commissioner has admitted making her mind up before speaking to me or any witnesses
  • This process would not survive a challenge in Court but Parliamentary Privilege denies me access to the court
  • There has been an absolute denial of justice which must be seen to be done and not delayed – this has taken 2 years
  • I am not guilty and a fair process would exonerate me
  • I challenge Parliament to waive privilege and permit me to prove my case in Court
  • I lost my beloved wife of 40 years and this process was a major contributory factor 

On 30 October 2019 the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards wrote to me informing me that she was starting an Inquiry following an article in The Guardian. This raised some questions regarding my publicly disclosed paid consultancies for Randox Laboratories and Lynn’s Country Foods Ltd.

Anyone who has been involved in a workplace investigation knows that the allegations are first put to the accused, usually in a meeting and then the investigation collects the evidence which involves speaking to witnesses.

The Commissioner didn’t speak to me until after she had made up her mind and that is admitted by her. The Commissioner and the Committee didn’t speak to any of the numerous witnesses at any stage.

The allegations were not put to me until AFTER the Commissioner admits she had made up her mind.

This is a biased process and not fair. It offends against the basic standard of procedural fairness that no one should be found guilty until they have had a chance to be heard and to present their evidence including their witnesses.

The Commissioner told me that she conducted an investigative process and she alone would decide what investigations would be undertaken. I was not permitted to know what steps the Commissioner was taking or invited to make suggestions as to who she should speak to.

As I answered the questions put to me, the Inquiry was broadened out, far beyond the original accusations made by The Guardian. As I answered one allegation, another different one was presented.  My responses were seemingly ignored.

The Inquiry has been protected by Parliamentary Privilege. I have been forbidden to challenge this unfair process or even discuss it, as the Inquiry must remain confidential until the outcome is published.

I reject completely the findings of the Committee for Parliamentary Standards. The methods of the investigation do not create a just and fair outcome.  Most importantly, not one of my 17 witnesses have been interviewed during the course of the investigation despite the passage of 24 months – not by the Commissioner, and not by the Committee. These highly reputable and reliable witnesses are the very people who say I am not guilty. What court, what work-place investigation, would ignore such evidence and call its procedures fair?

The Commissioner’s failure to investigate matters led to some bizarre decisions. For example, the Commissioner initially found that I didn’t speak to certain key officials who I should have spoken to about contaminated milk. In fact, I not only spoke to them, but I subsequently set up the Milk Quality Forum to help improve milk safety. Some of those officials who I was accused of not meeting attended all our meetings and we had most productive discussions, recommending measures to protect consumers. They gave evidence for me, which was ignored.

I am found guilty of non-declaration of interests when the substantial volume of witness evidence is that I always declare my interests

One of the formal and stated House of Commons requirements of an investigation such as this is that natural justice must be applied. That key requirement was breached, and the conclusions reached by the investigation are thereby unreliable.

I raised serious issues of food contaminated with unlawful carcinogenic substances, to protect the public. I did not gain any benefit, financial or otherwise, either for myself or for either of the two companies that I advise.  Neither has any evidence of gain by those companies been suggested.

My actions are permitted by the rules of the House. I acted properly in raising serious issues of health and officials I engaged with have accepted this.

The MPs’ Code of Conduct says that ‘Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole’. The rules clearly permit all MPs to initiate discussions with ministers and officials to address ‘a serious wrong or substantial injustice’. I was acting in the public interest when I raised these 3 issues of public health:

1.     The fact that milk in supermarkets was found to contain an antibiotic residue, Florfenicol, which is prohibited in dairy cows and prohibited from being present in milk because it is a danger to health. Parents would want to know that the milk they were buying for their children could increase the risk and spread of antimicrobial resistance which the World Health Organisation says will be the biggest killer worldwide by 2040. I would not wish to conceal this knowledge from the public or from Government having gained knowledge of it.

2.     The fact that a foreign food manufacturer was marketing a ‘natural ham’ that contained a banned carcinogenic nitrite that is recognised as a significant cause of bowel cancer. I would not be fulfilling my duty as an MP if I kept this matter concealed. Full disclosure was in the interests of the public. The company which had been using this banned chemical would also want to know and correct its product. As a result of my intervention the prohibited substance was removed.

3.     A priority for UK overseas aid is the improvement of health in developing countries.  This objective, and our resources, are undermined by the very poor application of laboratory quality control systems in some countries – to ensure reliable results and diagnoses.  As a result of frequent misdiagnoses, lives are lost and valuable healthcare resources wasted.  Any MP with this knowledge has a duty to share it for the benefit of the recipients of UK overseas aid and for effective use of significant sums of taxpayers’ money.  Here is a serious wrong that the UK can readily address.

The rules are specific that MPs may raise a ‘serious wrong or a substantial injustice’ even if they or their external associates benefit incidentally, but neither Randox nor Lynn’s had any benefit (incidental or otherwise) from my actions to protect the public.

Despite this tortuous and inadequate investigation, I would not hesitate to act in the same way again if confronted with new information about serious harms or wrongs requiring urgent remedy. I would also expect other MPs to do the same as it is no less than the public would demand.

As a result of my interventions, staple foods consumed by millions, milk and ham, are now safer than before.  Experts in Overseas Development now know that many of their laboratories abroad are underperforming, failing to protect the health of aid recipients and potentially wasting UK taxpayers’ money.

On a personal level, the cost to me and my three grown-up children from the manner of this investigation has been catastrophic. Last summer, in the midst of the investigation, my wife of 40 years, Rose, took her own life. We will never know definitively what drove her to suicide, but the manner in which this investigation was conducted undoubtedly played a major role.

Rose would ask me despairingly every weekend about the progress of the inquiry, convinced that the investigation would go to any lengths to somehow find me in the wrong. The longer the investigation went on and the more the questions went further and further from the original accusations, the more her anxiety increased. She felt beleaguered as I was bound by confidentiality and could not discuss this Inquiry with anyone else. She became convinced that the investigation would destroy my reputation and force me to resign my North Shropshire seat that I have now served for 24 years. She would also be a casualty, forced to resign her post as Chairman of Aintree Racecourse and a Steward of the Jockey Club, two roles of which she was rightly enormously proud.

I believe that no other MP should ever again be subject to this shockingly inadequate process. As in normal judicial proceedings, MPs subject to investigations must have a chance to see their evidence fully considered. There must be no mystery about interpretations of law that investigations apply. The Committee for Standards has been clear that the Office of the Commissioner is under an obligation to respond to points made by MPs under investigation. Normal judicial processes, such as the levelling of charges and the interviewing of witnesses, must be followed. If witness evidence is not challenged, it must stand.  It is absolutely extraordinary that not one of the 17 witnesses, all of whom supported my narrative, were never contacted let alone spoken to by the Commissioner or the Committee.

Parliament’s internal system of justice needs to operate properly within the principles of natural justice.

In my case, I am very clear that I acted properly and within the rules, putting my lifetime experience, my many years as an MP and my service as a Cabinet Minister towards ensuring the public good.

I am quite clear that I acted properly, honestly and within the Rules.