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Parliament Is a Racket

For years, MPs have got away with lucrative second jobs serving corporate interests despite obvious conflicts of interest – the solution isn't to pay them more, it's to force them to serve the public instead.

Geoffrey Cox is at the centre of a new corruption row due to his paid legal work for the British Virgin Islands. Credit: Getty Images

If, as the saying goes, the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer, its MPs treat Parliament as their poorly-paid sabbatical from corporate life. Before they swing in through the revolving door, Tory MPs are carefully selected from the ranks of the world’s most bloodsucking investment bankers, or even worse, its most boring corporate accountants. After they swing out, they can count on a host of lucrative sinecures as a reward for loyal service, to keep their colleagues still in Parliament hopeful for the prospect of corporate reward.

Thus, David Cameron stood to make up to £200 million in shares for ‘business advice’ to a failed business. In between jobs, Boris Johnson collected a cool £2,291 per hour from the Barclay brothers for his ‘journalism’, despite being notorious for making up quotes.

With all this money sloshing around, you might think Tory MPs would treat their time in Parliament as a chance to do something a bit different. You’d be wrong. The same corporate connections greasing their way in and out of the revolving door mean their time in Parliament is all too often a continuation of their corporate career by other means.

MP Impunity

On Owen Paterson’s version of events, it was all an unfortunate coincidence. His insistent emails to various public officials were simply part of his public duty, even the one which used his client’s name eight times in a single paragraph. Any benefits to his clients Randox and Lynn’s were just the happy side effect of his sincere efforts to campaign for food safety for the kids.

Randox must feel pretty silly, having paid Paterson £100,000 a year for lobbying he now says he would have done for free. But if he was being paid for valuable business advice, and not for his position as an MP, no doubt they’ll keep paying for it—even after he resigned from Parliament in disgrace last week.

To the public, it shocked the conscience that Paterson could collect two paycheques for the same meeting, as a lobbyist and an MP. But to at least 250 Tory MPs, his only crime was to be a bit gauche. After all, at least 22 of them had been investigated for similar wrongdoing.

In the perverse world of the House of Commons, Paterson was only caught on a technicality. Under Chapter 3, paragraph 8(b) of the Rules, Paterson could lobby for the benefit of his clients as he participated in approaches to public officials or proceedings in Parliament, but not if he initiated those approaches. In other words, Paterson could have attended exactly the same meetings, said exactly the same things, and sent exactly the same email frantically promoting Randox, as long as someone else sent the first email in the chain.

The distinction is so fine that it’s non-existent. (Almost as non-existent as Keir Starmer’s distinction between being ‘in talks for’ and ‘in discussions for’ a job with anti-Brexit law firm Mishcon de Reya while serving as Shadow Brexit Secretary, until Jeremy Corbyn reportedly vetoed it.) But the result is clear. If you’re a multinational corporation, you can hire an MP like a taxi.

With loopholes like these, even the most cynical corporate machine-man wouldn’t need to break the rules to run a profitable side hustle as an MP-lobbyist. But if it all goes wrong, the Standards Committee that Labour has spent the last week lionising is completely toothless. The worst it can do is make an MP apologise, or suspend them from their less-well-paying job (for a mere 30 days in Paterson’s case). MPs don’t even have to give the money back.

And if things really get tough, the Establishment takes care of its own. Just ask former Blairite Minister and convicted fraudster Denis MacShane. After prosecution by Keir Starmer’s CPS, he served just six weeks of a six month sentence for expenses fraud. Try stealing £12,900 from your employer, and you’re looking at more like three years.

Increasing Pay Is Not the Answer

Any ordinary worker abusing their job to fund their side-hustle would probably be sacked. But while the Tories refuse to play by corporate employees’ rules, they demand to be paid like they’re in the corporate world.

This is the most disgusting aspect of the whole affair. Paterson pleading his wife’s suicide as a reason to halt the investigation and MPs cynically using the murder of one of their colleagues to argue they shouldn’t have to disclose their expenses is gross enough. But even grosser are their outriders in the right-wing media (and even the self-proclaimed ‘centre-left’ press) who are using Paterson’s resignation to call for an increase in MPs’ pay.

Whinging about MPs not being paid enough while cutting Universal Credit is a favourite hobby of Boris Johnson and his cheerleaders. Their latest argument is that paying MPs more will reduce their criminal enterprise.

This ignores all the research. It is the rich and entitled—not the poor and downtrodden—who lie and cheat and steal, because they believe in their own privilege and impunity. But it also ignores just how much MPs are already paid.

Every MP in the House of Commons earns at least £81,932higher if they are a Minister or committee chair. That is almost three times the average wage, and more than twenty times the basic Universal Credit rate of £324.84 per month.

This puts MPs firmly in the top three percent of adult earners. And that’s on top of second home and expenses allowances that some MPs use to top up their household income.

Tory MPs lunching with billionaires tend to think in the hundreds of millions. But it has to be said that our old friends, the Labour Right, are also unabashed masters of little scams which fall just within the rules—from Angela Smith’s links to private water companies (which she later served after leaving Parliament) to Michael Dugher’s spirited defence of the bookies he would later lobby for, or David Blunkett’s transition from pro-Murdoch minister to News International ‘social responsibility’ advisor.

Owen Paterson isn’t an aberration. He isn’t even an especially egregious crook. The Tory Party is totally captured by big business, and stacked with corporate machine-men and MP-lobbyists. Unfortunately, much of the Labour Party is too. The latest front page villains are just the ones unlucky enough to get caught.