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UK sleaze crisis: What’s it all about?

HEXHAM: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) speaks with Marion Dickson, Executive Director of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professionals during a visit to Hexham General Hospital. Johnson faced pressure to appear before British lawmakers debating the standards system Monday, as days of sleaze and cronyism claims against his government intensified with new revelations. – AFP

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative party is facing a slew of sleaze allegations, largely centred on some of its lawmakers with lucrative second jobs. Johnson faced a barrage of questions about the claims on Wednesday, forcing him to deny that Britain and its political institutions were corrupt.

What are the claims?
UK MPs are permitted to hold second jobs, as long as they declare them, but are not allowed to use their parliamentary offices or resources for such work. Paid lobbying is also forbidden, with wrongdoing accusations probed by parliamentary standards watchdogs. The current scandal erupted last week when Johnson tried-and failed-to overhaul how the watchdogs system operates after Owen Paterson faced suspension over lobbying ministers for two firms that had him on the payroll.

It soon emerged numerous other MPs had high-paying second jobs, in particular lawyer and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox. He has been accused of using his parliamentary office for outside legal work, which has netted him more than £6 million ($8 million, 7 million euros) since becoming an MP in 2005, on top of his annual MP’s salary-currently around £82,000. Cox denies breaking the rules.
Who is involved?

Dozens of other Tory MPs have second jobs collectively earning them more than £1.7 million this year alone, according to reports yesterday based on parliament’s register of interests. They include Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who will have been paid £150,000 by the end of 2021 by the international investment bank JP Morgan. Meanwhile Mark Pawsey made £30,000-a-year as chairman of a packaging lobby group. He was reported to have spoken in parliament on multiple occasions in favour of watering down environmental laws to benefit plastic producers.

Former Conservative defence minister Philip Dunne has also been paid £51,000 by aerospace company Reaction Engines, while consistently asking questions in the House of Commons suggesting more defence spending. The issue has also started to impact other political parties, with The Times reporting Labour leader Keir Starmer, a former chief prosecutor, has earned tens of thousands of pounds from legal work in recent years. In addition to the furore around second jobs, a weekend report said the Conservatives have been “systematically” awarding seats in the unelected House of Lords, parliament’s upper chamber which scrutinises legislation, to its high-value donors.

What are the implications?
The revelations have renewed scrutiny about MPs’ potential conflicts of interest and evoked memories of a damaging scandal more than a decade ago over their expenses. That stoked intense public anger, prompted a string of resignations and is widely seen as contributing to a significant loss of trust in politicians preceding the 2016 anti-establishment Brexit vote.

The latest scandal has already led Owen Paterson to resign from parliament and heightened speculation that Cox and others in the firing line may follow suit. Parliamentary watchdogs are likely to probe Cox’s case after Labour wrote to the independent standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, demanding she investigate the alleged use of his MPs office for legal work.

An opposition MP has written to police asking officers to examine the Tory donations-for-peerages accusations. Meanwhile, calls are growing for more wholesale reform of standards rules, with Labour demanding paid directorships and consultancy roles are outlawed. Johnson does not favour an outright ban on all second jobs, because it would target lawmakers also working in health, education and other public service roles. But the British leader has said he is eager to see expected proposals from House of Commons Speaker Lindsey Hoyle, the current holder of the politically impartial post overseeing the chamber.

What about Johnson?
More than a week of damning headlines have cast Johnson’s government in a dismal light just as he browbeats world powers to show moral leadership over climate change at the ongoing COP26 summit in Glasgow. The 57-year-old Brexit architect is himself facing questions about who paid for his recent holidays to the Caribbean and Spain, as well as the expensive makeover of his Downing Street flat.

The results of several probes are expected soon. “All my declarations are in conformity with the rules,” Johnson insisted Wednesday to a question from AFP. But the past week has seen his poll ratings slump, with his personal ratings for trustworthiness and competence at record lows. Tory MPs are reportedly increasingly dissatisfied with their leader. “I can’t recall a moment quite like this since he became leader,” one Tory lawmaker told the Politico website. – AFP


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