Mass unemployment for MPs is a recipe for scandal (2024)

In the last few years, political scandals have become such a regular feature of British politics that it’s difficult to remember the specifics of each one. Announcement of a new by-election left us wondering whether this was another MP caught bullying staff? Or was this the one who allegedly got a dog drunk? The worst scandals, however may not start until after July’s election.

If we’re to believe the polls, many Conservative MPs, including cabinet ministers, are staring down the barrel of mass unemployment. In their new-found free time, some will easily monetise their political experience. Theresa May brought in over £1.8m for speeches she gave in the two years after she left Downing Street, and Boris Johnson has so far earned at least £5m. However, most aren’t so lucky. There are a limited number of well-paying roles available for former politicians. Many will struggle and unfortunately, Britain’s burgeoning political podcast industry can’t take them all.

Even though their party is unlikely to be in power, Conservative ex-ministers will still retain a deep understanding of the inner workings of their former departments, including current governmental thinking on a range of topics. How senior civil servants are likely to view an issue, and how best to present your arguments, is valuable information. This kind of institutional insight can be extremely useful to companies looking to influence policy or win lucrative government contracts or subsidies. As a result there is a danger that the race to secure future employment may well end up becoming a race to the bottom. Former politicians could find themselves being pushed to engage in ever-more-unethical lobbying in order to stand out from their peers.

Another concern is that a former MP, facing financial difficulty or with a mortgage overdue, could end up becoming entrapped by a hostile foreign intelligence agency, and be forced to divulge confidential information. The case of Will Wragg, who shared personal phone numbers of colleagues after being ‘manipulated’ in a sexting scam, shows how wide-ranging the damage can be once one well-connected person is compromised. Ex-MPs are entitled to retain security passes giving them reasonably unfettered access to the parliamentary estate. This alone would be extremely valuable to hostile state actors.

The situation is not helped by the fact that the current system for policing former politicians is so woefully inadequate. Ministers and senior civil servants looking to take on business roles within two years of leaving office are required to seek advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba). The committee, however, effectively acts as little more than an honesty box. It has no ability to compel applicants to answer their questions, nor mechanism to punish miscreants. Boris Johnson has been found to have flouted the rules on three separate occasions, each time without sanction. The most recent case involved a meeting with the leader of Venezuela. This was arranged by a hedge fund manager whose firm Boris allegedly acts as a consultant for. The chairman of Acoba, Lord Pickles, ruefully declared that while Boris Johnson had been ‘evasive’ and ‘avoided answering specific questions’ in this case, there was little that could be done as the rules ‘are unenforceable to applicants determined to ignore them’.

These scandals matter. Unlike often stale debates about policy, issues around ethics and propriety cut through the noise of modern life and inform public perception. The likelihood of NHS reform shortening waiting lists is difficult for the public to grasp. Whether an MP took money to ask questions on behalf of a company is simple. A recent poll by Ipsos found that trust in politicians had reached its lowest level in 40 years. Politicians, it found, were now the least trusted profession in the UK. The recent glut of scandals can’t have helped.

To avoid the next scandal, the system has to change, and quickly. Given their limited powers and resources, Acoba has done well in trying to hold rulebreakers to account. Responsibility for regulation, however, should be handed over to an independent body which has both sufficient resources and powers to effectively investigate cases, as well as the ability to punish rule breakers. The Electoral Commission, which already regulates elections and the financing of political parties, is one option. Labour is planning a new Ethics and Integrity Commission, which it promises will enforce restrictions on ministers lobbying for the companies they used to regulate.

Alongside those reforms, the arbitrary two-year window for seeking formal advice on new roles should be extended, especially for those holding the most sensitive and prominent governmental positions. It seems absurd that, just two years after standing down as PM, David Cameron was exempted for seeking advice from Acoba before taking his $1m-a-year role with Greensill Capital, while Cameron’s former political colleagues were still in power. This is not to imply that David Cameron did anything wrong or improper.

Former ministers and MPs should also be granted access to formal career transition and mentoring programmes. Recently, much has been done to ensure service personnel can access such services, so why can’t the same be done for those who served their country in government? Spending money to help already well-paid politicians find jobs may seem bizarre – but such a measure could be a low-cost way of avoiding future scandals and restoring faith in the system.

James Rose is a freelance writer specialising in politics and national security.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.

Mass unemployment for MPs is a recipe for scandal (2024)
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