Government scrambles to keep levelling up on track amidst second job row

By Vincent Carroll-Battaglino

It was inevitable that there would be more fallout from the standards committee debate ahead of tomorrow’s Opposition Day, which saw the Labour Party ready to force another vote on MPs having second jobs.

Despite the U-turn from the Government and the resignation of Owen Paterson as an MP, the Government has continued to find itself in an awkward position as the newspapers have trawled through the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The vote tomorrow on a Labour motion to ban second jobs, coupled with the Government’s need to shut down an increasingly damaging issue, has led to this afternoon’s letter from the Prime Minister to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In it, the Prime Minister has returned to the 2018 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and offered to implement two key recommendations – that the Code of Conduct for MPs should be updated to state that outside interests must not interfere with them carrying out their duties as an MP, and that MPs should not accept any paid work to provide services as a Parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant.

Implementing the first recommendation is eyebrow-raising, as it would hand the power of vetting MPs’ outside jobs to see if they were within ‘reasonable limits’ to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone. Only last week she was being heavily criticised by government ministers for being seen to overstep her authority.[TB1] [CW2] 

The attempt to neutralise this issue cannot come soon enough for Conservative MPs, particularly those in ‘red wall’ seats who have watched in frustration as the golden opportunity handed to the Conservatives to lock Labour out of power for a generation or more threatens to be frittered away.

On Monday Bim Afolami – an MP not from the red wall, though perhaps speaking for many of them – penned a warning for the Conservative Home blog. After getting through the COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed, Johnson risks losing this as the public “don’t think that MPs and the Government are doing their jobs effectively enough”, a position which Afolami thinks is right.

Among the 13 MPs voting against the government in the original standards vote, and the many more who didn’t register a vote, are a good number of those 2019 intake MPs from the former ‘red wall’. They will need something to sell to their constituents who gave them the benefit of the doubt at the last election, with many of them looking to the government’s levelling up agenda as the key catalyst for this.

The renaming of the local government and housing department to include ‘levelling up’ and the appointment of the dynamic Michael Gove to lead it shows that the Prime Minister recognises the need to act quickly.  Last week saw the first steps towards this, with Mr Gove offering his interpretation of ‘levelling up’ in front a select committee, defining it as “making opportunity more equal across the country.” The white paper, due in December, is expected to give more substance to this, and contain proposals to give local leaders more power to shape their communities.

However, the government needs some good news to shore up these ‘red wall’ seats quickly. This week was supposed to be about delivering on that, with the Integrated Rail Plan due out on Thursday. Early leaks suggest the £100bn plan to revitalise the rail network will not include the eastern leg of HS2, and instead upgrade existing lines. For Conservative MPs in northern seats, like Kevin Hollinrake and Robert Goodwill, that doesn’t meet the levelling up ambitions that Michael Gove is so determined to deliver.

We will see more details of the Integrated Rail Plan on Thursday, but it’s clear that the Government faces a challenge in ensuring its levelling up ambitions remain on track.