By Chris White
The latest set of front page news for the Conservatives to deal with is one of MPs second jobs. Geoffrey Cox QC, the former Attorney General, has had his second earnings splashed across the front pages.
The argument is long in the tooth, with both sides of the debate entrenched into long established positions. The Conservatives point to the experience that MPs can bring to the debating chamber from the business world, whereas Labour feel that an MPs job should be sufficient.
Whatever your view, attempting to define what is or isn’t a second job, and whether MPs should be able to take one, is not easy. Being a Minister is technically a second job. What about writing a newspaper column, or doing some shifts on the doctors ward to keep your qualifications currrent? All MPs must declare their earnings, and as defenders of Geoffrey Cox point out, he has been declaring his outside interests throughout several elections without any impact on his majority.
The debate, however, exemplifies how vulnerable the Conservatives are currently to accusations of wrongdoing, and of Labour attack lines and attempting to differentiate between “us and them”. The Conservatives certainly haven’t helped themselves in the last week following on from the Paterson vote last week
The decision to try and save Mr Paterson was deeply misguided. The report from the Standards Commissioner was as clear cut and damning as it is possible to be, with numerous clear-cut breaches of the rules.
Despite this, he and his supporters attacked the Commissioner and the process, claiming that the way the investigation took place was unfair, and risked undermining the independence of MPs. To conflate the individual case that had to be answered with apparent issues with the standards system, was wholly wrong.
Instead of accepting the possible fate of one its MPs, the Government took the decision to use its majority to dismantle the entire standards system, putting in its place a system to be determined by a committee led by a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. Attempting to dismantle the existing standards system, something that has always operated on a cross-party basis, was never going to fly with the Opposition.
In terms of optics, it could hardly be worse. Within hours of the vote, Labour was pumping out digital adverts in marginal Conservative constituencies, and Conservative MPs in red wall seats were seeing the reality of how a single seat-problem had ballooned into one that affected them all. The traditional attack lines on second jobs are also being wheeled out.
The impact on party unity is hard to understate. Rumours abound of threats being issued ahead of the vote, ranging from being off the promotion list, to having campaigning or constituency funding cut, and one Parliamentary Private Secretary was forced to resign, only to be reinstated hours later following the screeching u-turn. Backbenchers will question why they should troop through the division lobby for the Government on difficult votes again, especially on those issues which the government is so clearly in the wrong. The Chief Whip will find his job much harder to do. Ultimately, the biggest question mark for the Government is how it got itself in this position in the first place, why it was prepared to try and save a single backbench MP, despite the obvious and evident downsides. Conducting the postmortem over the coming days will be crucial to avoiding these mistakes in the future, and the show of unity from within government and avoiding the blame game is probably the only positive that can be taken from this debacle. If a lesson can be learned, it is that someone in Downing Street needs to be able to look up and see the woods from the trees, and see the bigger picture.