A sleaze scandal that actually punishes the Conservatives at the ballot box?

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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Labour has claimed a victory. Following two weeks of Tory sleaze headlines, the party tabled a motion calling for a ban on “any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”. It said the opposition day motion, which would not usually be binding on the government, has been written in such a way as to give it legal effect. The text, being voted on today, calls on parliament to do something – for its standards committee to draw up proposals to implement the ban and guarantee time for MPs to vote on them – rather than the government. Boris Johnson last night announced that he is in favour of such a ban.

As LabourList explained yesterday, the motion left the Prime Minister in a tricky position. If he instructed his MPs to abstain or gave them a free vote the motion would likely pass, causing him difficulties with the Tories keen to hang on to their additional cash; 50 of his MPs have earned more than £1.7m in consultancy fees in 2021 alone and 90 out of 360 Conservatives have extra jobs. But if he ordered MPs to vote against he would have been defending sleaze at a time when 60% of people think the Tories give the impression of being “very sleazy”.

Keir Starmer held a press conference yesterday, announcing plans to “clean up politics”. He said he wanted to ban “all second jobs for MPs”, with very limited exceptions, and proposed a five-year ban on former ministers taking jobs in the sectors they used to regulate. He also argued there should be tighter rules on foreign money coming into politics and that there should be a new ‘Office of Value for Money’, a policy announced at conference, to stop the waste of taxpayers’ money and reform of the procurement system. The Prime Minister preempted the conference by a few minutes to seemingly concede some of the demands.

All is not as it seems, however. Ministers have tabled an amendment to the motion being voted on today. It would simply describe the proposals from the opposition as a “viable approach”. It would also remove the requirement for the committee to bring forward proposals implementing the ban and the guarantee of time for a debate and a vote on them. Labour has accused the Prime Minister of playing “dirty tricks“. Thangam Debbonaire said: “Johnson’s rhetoric is a long way from reality. Labour has put forward a binding motion to start to clean up our politics after the Tory sleaze scandal. The Conservatives are trying to water that down.”

The row over MPs’ second jobs is hurting the Tories. It has cut through in a way that other sleaze scandals have not. Numerous headlines on shady Covid contract deals failed to translate into a blow for the Tories at ballot boxes across the UK earlier this year, for example. Sex and abuse scandals, too, seem to go by relatively unnoticed: Rob Roberts MP, found to have sexually harassed a staff member, was quietly returned to parliament and readmitted to the Conservative Party earlier this month. But recent polls by Savanta ComresOpinium and YouGov now show, respectively, a six-point lead for Labour, a one-point lead and the opposition party tied with the Conservatives. Today is an attempt at damage control for the Tories. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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