The word of the week in politics has undoubtedly been sleaze. It is a rather strange, hard to define term, but that hasn’t stopped the media slapping it on their front pages, with headlines declaring that ‘sleaze is BACK’ (did it ever go away being the obvious follow up question…)
What began with the Owen Paterson fiasco has now become a broader period of scrutiny. Geoffrey Cox, the MP who hit fame for sounding like a melodramatic Shakespearian actor at the despatch box, is the latest to be accused of being a sleazy sleazebag. His sleaziness does indeed seem rather sleazy, and the former Attorney General has big questions to answer. Some things are grey areas, but the rule about not doing outside work while on the Parliamentary estate is not.
So, is this the next expenses scandal? The media are definitely going all-in, and this is the kind of topic that could run and run. MPs having second jobs is not a new thing, but the topic is a minefield that hasn’t really faced sustained scrutiny before. Every political journalist under the sun will now be poring through the register of members interests, mining their next headline.
Labour continues to push the topic hard, gambling that the story will remain about ‘Tory sleaze’ and not ‘MP sleaze’. It is a risky indulgence, and there will definitely be a headline next week, probably in The Express, titled LABOUR’S SLEAZE HYPROCRISY, about Rt Hon Joe Bloggs MP who it turns out has also done some iffy paid consulting. This issue does genuinely seem to be more rife in the Tory Party though, which is why Labour are using it. Plus, they can point to Keir’s track record of prosecuting expenses cheats, as evidence that they are the party who will be tough on sleaze, and tough on the causes of sleaze.
The Tories meanwhile are in a tough spot and absolutely fuming about it. The most rage inducing thing for them is that this was an entirely preventable scandal. If Owen Patterson had just taken his punishment, this story would be dead as a dodo. But instead, Boris showed up all his MPs by enforcing a three-line whip on an insane rewriting of the rules, before then backing down, causing a storm, and thrusting all their second jobs into the spotlight as a result. Backbench sentiment regarding Boris hasn’t been great for a while, but now they are hopping! Because of him, the days of getting hundreds of thousands of pounds on the side with no questions asked might be done for. How dare he do this to them!?
If there has been wrongdoing – and it seems pretty certain that there has – then it is right that this conversation is being had. But a big ol’ Westminster scandal will come with a downside. MPs are already viewed with distain, distrust and loathing. Intensive discussion on sleaze is not exactly going to do wonders to combat a nation of cynics. But it is precisely because most MPs are decent and in it for the right reasons, that the system needs to rid itself of behaviour that flies in the face of that. This is painful but needed introspection.
As for Boris… the PM will be avoiding his backbenchers for the foreseeable future, unless he wants some tough conversations. And given this is the guy who once hid from journalists in a fridge, it is a safe bet that tough conversations ain’t really his thing.