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Owen Paterson Is Not an Anomaly

The Owen Paterson scandal isn’t about rogue individuals – it shines a light on a political system where corporate money shapes public policy.

Owen Paterson has quit as an MP after he was found to have broken lobbying rules. Credit: Getty Images

Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, earns more than £80,000 as his standard parliamentary salary. To supplement that, he also makes £182,000 through various consultancy jobs for Investec, Ernst and Young, and Kingsley Capital Partners, among others, for hours that amount to just 34.5 days’ work. His colleague Julian Smith, the Honourable Member for Skipton and Ripon, earns £144,000 for around 75 hours.

Mitchell and Smith are at the extreme end of this element of parliamentary culture, but their corporate links themselves are no rarity: more than 30 MPs hold similar consultancy posts. In fact, as Dan Carden wrote in Tribune back in February, Britain is a world leader in corporate-political connections:

46 percent of the top 50 corporations have connections with a serving MP, and connected companies form 39 percent of market capitalisation. The same figures for the United States, a country known for its corporate donor culture, are only 6 percent and 4 percent respectively. The only countries with a higher percentage than the UK are Russia and Thailand.

These connections have come under renewed pressure following the resignation of Owen Paterson, now-former Tory MP for North Shropshire. Paterson stood down from his post last week after a prime ministerial attempt to save him from punishment for breaking lobbying rules—a 30-day suspension, leaving him open to a possible open recall petition—backfired.

The MP’s infraction was lobbying on behalf of two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year, Lynn’s Country Foods and clinical diagnostics firm Randox—the same Randox that was last year awarded a £133 million government contract to produce Covid testing kits, later extended for a further £347 million, despite a reported lack of equipment. Paterson has maintained faith in his own integrity, arguing that the issues he raised were in the interest of public health and safety.

In the ensuing row, some have pointed out that the status quo enjoyed ‘legitimately’ by MPs like Mitchell and Smith lends itself all too easily to Paterson-style corruption. Parliamentarians are allowed to hold second, third, and fourth jobs that pay them hundreds of thousands of pounds; they’re just not supposed to lobby directly for them for their own financial benefit. In the corridors of Westminster, of course, it’s unlikely the line is ever so clear-cut.

As a result, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is reportedly considering a ban on these kinds of ‘consultancy’ roles. Similar standards are already in place in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the House of Lords, according to the Guardian. The latter’s concurrent cash-for-honours scandal, however, proves that this kind of rule change is barely a panacea; indeed, in the Commons, formal paid consultancy relationships are only one of the many ways in which MPs form connection with private interests.

Plenty of other MPs earn cash from informal speaking engagements, for example. The friendships, family relationships, and mutual hobbies between politicians and the corporations they court are often even more powerful, as evidenced by the otherwise inexplicable rise of Dido Harding. So too are the simple shared interests of the ruling class: if the fear is that corporate consultancy jobs prevent parliamentarians from working in the interests of those who elect them, the standards committee might also want to do something about 115 MPs who make more than £10,000 per year as landlords.

Recent decades have seen these connections become ever-more baked into the structure of the state. With public services eroded almost out of existence, the ideological inviting-in of corporate bodies to plug the gaps has created a growing bank of opportunities whereby politicians can ‘legitimately’ divert public money into the pockets of their friends and donors. The result isn’t just a nominal ‘unfairness’: as proved by the case of the Chartwells school hampers scandal, by decades of life-threatening NHS outsourcing, or by the countless failures of the private companies tasked with running the country’s Covid response, these friends and donors are almost never equipped to provide the service for which they’re contracted—and ordinary people pay the price.

As Harry Stratton noted in Tribune back in April after the Cameron-Greensill scandal broke, what’s striking about the nature of British chumocracy is how mundane most of it is. In the case of Boris Johnson and James Dyson, the relationship was little more than a series of texts from one mate to another; they had nothing to hide, and not much to fear.

These are people who see the system as something there to be gamed in their favour. These are people who see no contradiction between making thousands per hour for their corporate lobbying job and voting against raising the minimum wage—and even if the corporate lobbying job has to disappear, that sense of entitlement won’t.

Putting a stop to MPs’ consultancy jobs is an important step, but it’s a symbolic one. What the record proves is that it’s going to take a much bigger overhaul to build a political system that actually works for the public good.