Starmer on PM: “Government corruption – there is no other word for it”

Keir Starmer
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech today on parliamentary standards.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We have faced each other at the despatch box many times. And whilst it is always a pleasure, I am sure, like me, he wishes his days as a nightwatchman were a thing of the past. Defending valiantly against hostile bowling on a sticky wicket of his Prime Minister’s creation. It is as if 2019 never ended.

That is because last week the Prime Minister damaged himself. And despite the bravery of some Members opposite, he damaged his party. But most importantly he damaged our democracy.

We are fortunate in this country. Voters may not always agree with politicians. They often don’t. But they do trust that disagreements are sincere, that their representatives are acting in what they think is the public interest, and that we can resolve our disagreements in debate, and at the ballot box.

But when the Prime Minister gives the green light to corruption, he corrodes that trust. When he says that the rules to stop vested interests don’t apply to his friends, he corrodes that trust. And when he deliberately undermines those charged with stopping corruption, he corrodes that trust. And that is exactly what the Prime Minister did last week.

And now today, he does not even have the decency either to come here either to defend what he did or to apologise for his actions. Rather than repairing the damage that he has done, the Prime Minister is running scared. When required to lead, he has chosen to hide. His concern, as always, is self-preservation, not the national interest.

It is time for everyone in this House, whatever their party, to draw a line and send a message to the Prime Minister: enough is enough. We will not stand by whilst he trashes our democracy.

The case of the former Member for North Shropshire is simple. Everyone in this House has enormous sympathy for the tragic circumstances in which he lost his wife. His pain and his anguish are unimaginable and I want to express my condolences to him, as I did at the time. The Committee on Standards rightly took those awful circumstances into account when considering his conduct.

There was a serious and robust process. He had prior notice of charges against him. He had legal advisers with him. He was invited to appeal against the Commissioner’s findings in writing and in person, and he did so.

The findings were clear. An egregious case of paid advocacy, he took money to lobby ministers. That is against the rules, as it is in any functioning democracy. And it’s corrupt.

The Prime Minister should have told the former member for North Shropshire that the right thing to do was to accept his punishment. His duty of care towards him demanded it. His duty to defend standards demanded it. Basic decency demanded it.

Instead, the British people were let down and the former Member for North Shropshire was let down, used as a pawn in an extraordinary attack on our Commissioner for Standards.

Threats to have money taken away from schools, hospitals and high streets unless Members voted to undermine the commissioner. Ministers sent on the airways the morning after the vote to call for her to consider her position. And a sham committee proposed so the government can set the judge and jury for future cases.

That was a deliberate course of action. But the government was caught off guard by public outcry and they have climbed down. But it wasn’t a tactical mistake, an innocent misjudgement swiftly corrected by a U-turn. It was the Prime Minister’s way of doing business. A pattern of behaviour.

When the Prime Minister’s adviser on the Ministerial Code found against the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister kept the Home Secretary and forced out the adviser. When the Electoral Commission investigated the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister threatened to shut it down. And when the Commissioner for Standards looked into the Prime Minister’s donations, the Prime Minister tried to take her down.

Government corruption. There is no other word for it. It is said that the Prime Minister doesn’t believe the rules apply to him, but it’s worse than that. He absolutely knows that the rules do apply to him. His strategy is to devalue the rules so they don’t matter to anyone anymore and to go after those charged with enforcing the rules, so that breaking the rules has less consequence.

That way, politics becomes contaminated. Cynicism replaces confidence and trust. The taunt “politicians are all in it for themselves” becomes accepted wisdom. And with that, the Prime Minister hopes to drag us all into the gutter with him.

It only serves to convince people that things can’t get better. Government can’t improve people’s lives. Progress isn’t possible because politics doesn’t work. But, in the right hands, used in the right way, for the right reasons, politics can work. Because politics can be a noble cause. To build a better country. To build a better world.

And for some, it is also a great personal sacrifice. The plaques in this House to Airey Neave and Jo Cox, the empty seat where, just weeks ago, Sir David Amess sat, are testament to that. If we are to honour their memory, we have to defeat the politics of cynicism propagated by the Prime Minister.

This parliament has shown it is not powerless to act in the face of corruption and I want to praise those members opposite who last week stood with Labour and stood up to the Prime Minister. I have no doubt that this coalition against corruption will be reassembled again if it is ever needed.

(Keir Starmer responded to an intervention asking whether Labour MPs were whipped on the Owen Paterson motion last week. He replied: “No. Our members didn’t need whipping to know what the right decision was.”)

There are good ideas across the House about how we can improve standards and restore the trust the Prime Minister has broken. We are willing to work cross-party – and with the expertise in the Standards Committee – to make that happen. But let me make it loud and clear, we are not willing to work with the government on their plans to weaken standards. There will no cross-party agreement on weakening standards.

There are other ideas. Labour has long called for the MPs Code of Conduct to ban paid directorships and consultancy roles. The current Code of Conduct recognises that these roles are a potential conflict of interest but it doesn’t ban them. We voted to fix that in 2015 but we were blocked by the government. A change along these lines has been recommended by the independent Committee for Standards in Public Life. But there hasn’t been any action from the government. It is time to put that right.

In addition, the revolving door between Ministerial Office and the private sector is in full swing. Ministers can regulate a company one minute and then work for them the next. The Businesses Appointments Committee is too weak to provide a check and balance. And it is time to shut the revolving door by banning these jobs swaps.

In addition, this weekend we have been reminded of that appalling inevitable pattern…

  • Large donation to the Conservative Party.
  • A stint as Party Treasurer.
  • And then an appointment to the House of Lords.

The regulator has been ignored by the Prime Minister… And broken in the process. There is no doubt the House of Lords needs fundamental democratic reform. But we can act now to toughen the rules over appointments.

All of these are areas where we can work together to restore trust and strengthen standards. Instead, we have been invited into a sham process designed to force out the Commissioner for Standards. And we’re told the main problem is that there is no right to appeal, when there already is one. That’s why we have no interest in talking with the government about how to weaken the current system. Mr Speaker, the lack of common ground is fundamental.

The government wants to weaken the system because it keeps investigating and finding against them. The best solution is the simple one. They should change their behaviour. And the Prime Minister should show some leadership. He should send a clear message that the rules apply to everyone and that those enforcing rules to prevent corruption will be supported by the government, rather than forced out.

The Prime Minister could start by making three simple commitments. First, work with us to ensure that the Member for Delyn [Rob Roberts] faces a recall petition. It is completely unacceptable for a Member to be found guilty of sexually harassing junior staff yet avoid the judgement of the electorate on the basis of a loophole. The government has hidden behind that loophole. It’s now time to come out of hiding.

Second, the Prime Minister needs to agree that no Member found guilty of egregious breaches of the MP’s Code of Conduct can be recommended for a peerage. The government can’t reward bad behaviour and corruption with a job for life making the laws of the land.

Third, the Prime Minister must commit to a full and transparent investigation into Randox and government contracts. What do we know? We know that Randox has been awarded government contracts worth over £600m – without competition or tender. We know that the former Member for North Shropshire lobbied for Randox. We know that he sat in on a call between Randox and the Minister responsible for handling health contracts.

Against this backdrop, there is obviously a worry that the use of taxpayers’ money and the effectiveness of our pandemic response may have been influenced by paid advocacy from the former Member for North Shropshire.

If the Prime Minister is interested in rooting out corruption, he needs to launch a full investigation. If the Prime Minister is interested in restoring trust, we need full transparency with all the relevant correspondence published. No ifs, not buts.

Mr Speaker, last week the Prime Minister damaged himself, he damaged his party and he damaged our democracy. He led his party through the sewers and the stench lingers. This week he had the chance to clean up, apologise to the country and finally accept the rules apply to him and his friends.

But instead of stepping up, he has hidden away. Instead of clearing up his mess, he has left his side knee-deep in it. Instead of leading from the front, he has cowered away. He is not a serious leader and the joke isn’t funny anymore.

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