Watchdog Report and Corruption Discourse in London

Watchdog Report and Corruption Discourse in London

The recent resurgence of the debate around the often cosy relationship between elected Members of the UK’s House of Commons and private sector actors has been dominating headlines. It throws into sharp relief the issues around paid work by MPs alongside their parliamentary duties and essential role of advocating for their own constituents. Despite the UK’s consistently high ranking on Transparency International’s corruption index (CPI), which measures perceived corruption as assessed by experts in academia and industry, continued coverage of ‘sleaze’ (hereafter corruption) and undue influence risk damaging the UK’s reputation on an international stage.

The most recent flurry of media attention into lobbying began with the recommendation, by the Parliamentary Standards Committee, that former MP Owen Paterson be suspended from Parliament for 30 days following his lobbying activities as a paid consultant. Described as “an egregious case of paid advocacy”, Paterson was found to have lobbied government ministries on behalf of his clients. Paid advocacy is strictly forbidden, and rules to that effect have been in place since 1695.

At first, Boris Johnson’s government appeared determined to defend its embattled fellow Conservative and longstanding MP for North Shropshire, after ordering its Members to back a vote to block Paterson’s 30-day suspension and review the system that found him guilty, potentially changing it. The Labour chair of the Committee on Standards, which contains both members of the public and MPs from across the Commons, described Paterson’s actions as “corrupt”, and denied claims that his attempts to appeal were not considered. Furthermore, the report itself describes the “serious breach of the rules” as something which has “brought the House into disrepute”.


Soon after the vote to block suspension was narrowly passed, the government’s plans to review the system for investigating MPs were dropped, shortly followed by a resignation from Owen Paterson. The backlash over the government’s attempt to overhaul the system appeared to transcend party lines, with backbench Tories critical of the move, and even the Daily Mail, with a typically loyal editorial stance to Johnson, describing the U-turn as “humiliating”. Sir John Major, a critic of the Johnson administration and former Conservative PM, described the government’s handling of the situation as “shameful”. Lord Evans, a crossbench peer, who sits in the House of Lords and chairs the Committee and Standards in Public Life, labelled the affair as “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”. An editorial by the FT laments the lack of public trust in politics. Finally, The Economist considers the affair “disgraceful”.

The Revolving Door Spins

Owen Paterson’s case comes only months after other scandals, also involving the Conservatives. David Cameron, a former Tory Prime Minister, was involved in the biggest lobbying scandal to hit Downing Street in a generation when it was revealed that he had directly messaged Ministers, including Chancellor Sunak, advocating for now defunct Greensill to gain access to government-backed loans during the early days of the pandemic. Peter Cruddas received a peerage after previous involvement in a ‘cash for access’ scandal and the categorical refusal by the commission responsible for vetting appointments to the Lords to endorse his application. Shortly after his nomination, he donated £500,000 to the party.

Reputational Risks

The accusations of corruption overshadowed the UK’s hosting of the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow. During questions after a speech by the PM, Johnson was asked whether he had a message for voters and, in an arguably unprecedented statement, sought to reassure the public by insisting that “[the UK’s] institutions are not corrupt”. It is uncharacteristic for the leader of an advanced economy to feel obliged to placate voters in such a way.

It is highly unlikely that these (or any further) revelations will have any direct impact upon the UK’s economic position: investors will not cease to pour money into the nation’s property and equity markets, the Pound will remain a relatively attractive and safe currency, and foreign businesses will continue to use the country’s world-class financial and legal services. However, reputation is important when negotiations are involved, and the steady stream of negative headlines relating to corruption have been reported internationally, from the US to Germany and France.

With the UK busy with negotiating trade deals around the world, it is vital to be regarded as a serious negotiating partner. With its commitment to previous agreements thrown into doubt, such as the politically sensitive fishing and Northern Ireland agreements with the EU, allegations of corruption at the heart of the governing party do not bode well.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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