Boris Johnson abruptly ended a 22-minute press conference tonight after facing a barrage of questions about Tory sleaze.
An awkward-looking Mr Johnson insisted MPs’ second jobs ‘strengthen democracy’ saying that for ‘hundreds of years’ politicians had been able to do outside work.
But he swiped at Geoffrey Cox, who has been criticised for his £1million-a-year legal sideline, saying they ‘must put your job as an MP first’, as well as stressing that paid lobbying is never acceptable.
And Mr Johnson seemed in a hurry to escape, bringing the proceedings to an abrupt halt as he looked as his watch and said he needed to go and catch ‘climate-friendly transport’ – the train – back to London.
The premier had made a dash to Scotland in a bid to reinvigorate the UN summit negotiations over a deal to tackle climate change, but found himself taken to task over the sleaze crisis.
‘On second jobs, I would say that for hundreds of years MPs have gone to Parliament and also done work as doctors, lawyers or soldiers or firefighters or writers, or all sorts of other trades and callings,’ he said.
‘And on the whole, the UK population has understood that that has actually strengthened our democracy, because people basically feel that parliamentarians do need to have some experience of the world.
‘But, if that system is going to continue today, then it is crucial that MPs follow the rules.
‘And the rules say two crucial things: you must put your job as an MP first and you must devote yourself primarily and above all to your constituents and the people who send you to Westminster, to Parliament.
‘And they also say that you should not use your position as an MP to lobby or otherwise intervene on behalf of any outside commercial interest. And it is not only that you have to register those interests – you can’t lobby or make representation while an MP on behalf of those interests.
‘Those are the rules and they must be enforced and those who don’t obey them should of course face sanctions.’
The Tory misery showed no sign of easing today, with former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey sounding defiance after footage emerged appearing to show him representing the British Virgin Islands at a fraud commission by video-link from his Commons office.
Labour has demanded a standards probe, while ministers have admitted that using parliamentary facilities for work is against the rules. He denies any breach.
Meanwhile, Andrew Bowie, tipped as a rising star, has stepped back from his role as a Conservative vice-chair role. He insisted he wants to focus on his Scottish constituency, but has reportedly told friends he is ‘unable to support the government’ in the wake of the Paterson row.
Ministers have been desperately trying to pour cold water on the idea of full ban on MPs having second jobs. Health Secretary Sajid Javid suggested some politicians would opt to leave parliament, and stressed that the Commons benefits from people being connected to the outside world.
Labour has accused Mr Johnson of using the day-trip to Scotland as a ‘distraction’ from the sleaze row. Many had expected him to go towards the end of the week when talks are at a crunch point.
He has also dropped plans for a Cabinet away-day at Chequers tomorrow.
Boris Johnson seemed in a hurry to escape the press conference tonight, bringing the proceedings to an abrupt halt as he looked as his watch and said he needed to go and catch ‘climate-friendly transport’ – the train – back to London
Boris Johnson pictured at the COP26 summit today, where he is running the gauntlet of a press conference
Mr Johnson at a COP26 meeting today, where he is trying to boost negotiations on deal to tackle climate climate change
Sir Geoffrey Cox has been referred to the Commons standards tsar over claims he broke Commons rules by using his parliamentary office to offer legal advice to the British Virgin Islands
Mr Bowie said today that he wanted to ‘focus on representing my constituents’
Mr Johnson was grim-faced as his focus on the COP26 summit was constantly derailed by questions about sleaze.
‘On the issue of MPs and second jobs and all that, I just want to say that the most important thing is that those who break the rules must be investigated and should be punished,’ he said.
Earlier, Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said: ‘It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the prime minister sees a day trip to the COP as a useful way of distracting from the sleaze surrounding the Tory party rather than a chance to get a grip and engage in the substance like a statesman.
‘It’s high time Boris Johnson recognised that he is not a commentator but needs to take charge of a summit that is not on track to deliver.’
Mr Johnson arrived at the COP26 summit by train this afternoon, having been criticised for flying in and out of Glasgow when he kicked the gathering off last week.
Tory sources indicated the vice-chair position would be held open for Mr Bowie should he wish to return.
But a friend told the Reaction website: ‘He doesn’t want to make a fuss but he’s unable to support the government after the events of recent days.’
The MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine has a narrow majority, holding the seat in 2019 by only 843 votes in the face of an SNP surge.
When first elected in 2017, Mr Bowie enjoyed a majority of almost 8,000 after being bolstered by a 19 point swing to the Tories.
As the pressure increases on Mr Johnson, Labour former PM Gordon Brown said he backs an ‘outright ban’ on MPs ‘using a public office for private gain’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think, where there’s a conflict of interest using a public office for private gain, it should be banned outright and I’ve always said this.
‘I think there are three issues that have now got to be dealt with. One is these conflicts of interest – we’ve got to have tighter rules. Secondly, we’re now dealing with dubious appointments, for example, to the House of Lords – we’ve got to do something about this – and, thirdly, I think there’s a bigger issue emerging about foreign money entering British politics.
‘All these issues will have to be addressed, otherwise this will become a Parliament which will be increasingly identified with sleaze and increasingly identified with private interests overcoming what should be what MPs are all about and that is representing the public interest.’
Sir Geoffrey finally came out fighting today over his £1m-a-year legal sideline saying the chief whip approved him going to the Caribbean while the Commons sat.
The former Attorney General took aim at Mark Spencer as he insisted it is for voters in his Devon constituency to decide whether they wanted to be represented by a ‘senior and distinguished’ QC.
He also denied breaching rules by apparently attending a hearing at a corruption commission on the British Virgin Islands by video-link from his parliamentary office.
Scottish First minister Nicola Sturgeon was also at the COP26 summit in Glasgow today
Mr Johnson is hoping to put rocket boosters under the climate change negotiations, but could be derailed by the ongoing sleaze rows
Sir Geoffrey broke cover for the first time – despite being believed to be abroad – after days of silence amid the allegations.
Boris Johnson is desperately struggling to contain the wider sleaze furore after his abortive bid to save Owen Paterson from punishment for lobbying. The PM is set to be grilled at a press conference at 4.30pm, where he had hoped to focus on progress at the COP26 summit in Glasgow.
A statement posted on Sir Geoffrey’s website said he ‘regularly works 70-hour weeks and always ensures that his casework on behalf of his constituents is given primary importance and fully carried out’.
He said spending weeks on the British Virgin Islands this spring ‘made no difference.. since it was not practicable or desirable at that time to meet face to face’.
‘As to the use of the proxy, prior to his visit to the BVI, he consulted the Chief Whip specifically on this issue and was advised that it was appropriate,’ the statement said.
‘Sir Geoffrey’s view is that it is up to the electors of Torridge and West Devon whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field and who still practices that profession.
‘That has been the consistent view of the local Conservative Association and although at every election his political opponents have sought to make a prominent issue of his professional practice, it has so far been the consistent view of the voters of Torridge and West Devon. Sir Geoffrey is very content to abide by their decision.’
The bullish stance came after a stormy phone conversation with the chief whip last night, in which Sir Geoffrey was ordered to spend more time in Parliament.
A Government source said Mr Spencer had ‘reminded him he needs to be physically present in Parliament, representing his constituents’.
The former Cabinet minister has been heavily rebuked following revelations he has been working in the Caribbean tax haven
The chair of the standards committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant, said this morning that the regulations against using parliamentary offices for outside business were ‘really important’.
‘You might end up occasionally meeting other people in your office but you’re not meant to run a commercial operation out of your taxpayer-funded office either in Parliament or in your constituency – it’s a really important, I’d have thought, kind of basic rule,’ he told BBC Breakfast.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was asked during a round of interviews whether MPs should be able to use their office for work connected with a second job. He replied: ‘No.’
Mr Javid insisted MPs should ‘spend the vast majority of their time’ on parliamentary and constituency duties, but also cautioned that a complete ban could lead to some politicians leaving the House.
‘I think it’s right that those rules allow that flexibility, but I think the most important thing really is that MP, whoever he or she may be, is completely transparent and open, follows all the rules, so that their constituents and the wider public know that they might have another interest,’ he said.
‘Also, I think it’s important that they continue to spend the vast majority of their time on their parliamentary affairs and their constituency affairs.’
Aviation minister Robert Courts said: ‘There is an experience that is brought to MPs through having jobs, whatever those jobs might be.’
Asked about giving up his work as a barrister, he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: ‘I took the view that I wasn’t going to practise after I was elected in 2016 and I haven’t.
‘That was the decision I took. I decided that I wanted to be an MP and I was going to give all of the time to being an MP, and obviously, now being a minister, even more, of course.
‘I think the key thing that we have to look at here is that there is an experience that is brought to MPs through having jobs, whatever those jobs might be.
‘We also have MPs who have all sorts of experience in other areas, for example doctors and nurses. There are people who are serving MPs who practise in the front line at the NHS, and I think the House of Commons is richer for that.’