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Boris Johnson insists UK not corrupt and defends MPs’ second jobs

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Boris Johnson on Thursday defended the principle of MPs holding second jobs and insisted that the UK was not a corrupt country as he continued to face accusations of “sleaze” in his Conservative party.

The prime minister’s comments followed footage that appeared to show Sir Geoffrey Cox, a Tory MP and former attorney-general, using his House of Commons office for legal work advising the British Virgin Islands through which he earned hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The growing scandal engulfing the Conservatives over outside interests of MPs triggered its first resignation on Wednesday when Andrew Bowie quit as a vice-chair of the party.

Johnson said MPs should be punished if they break parliamentary rules over second jobs — a week after he was accused of blocking the punishment of former Tory minister Owen Paterson, who was found to have done so.

“The most important thing is those who break the rules must be investigated and should be punished,” he said at a press conference at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, where he twice refused to apologise for the scandal surrounding Paterson.

But the prime minister defended the principle of MPs pursuing outside interests, arguing they broadened the experience of the House of Commons.

“For hundreds of years, MPs have gone to parliament and also done work as doctors, lawyers, soldiers, firefighters or writers . . . on the whole, the UK population has understood that has actually strengthened our democracy because people basically feel parliamentarians need some experience of the world.”

Johnson added he did not believe the UK was “remotely a corrupt country”, after the Labour party accused him of being corrupt. “I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt. We have a very, very tough system of parliamentary democracy and scrutiny, not least by the media.”

Labour has called for the independent parliamentary standards commissioner to assess whether Cox’s use of his Commons office was a breach of the MPs’ code of conduct. This states that any facilities paid for by the taxpayer should only support an MP’s “parliamentary duties” and that MPs’ use of public resources should not “confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves”.

A statement released by Cox’s office stated: “He does not believe that he breached the rules but will of course accept the judgment of the parliamentary commissioner or of the committee on the matter.”

Cox earned almost £1m from his legal work last year, on top of his £82,000 salary as MP for Torridge and West Devon. It emerged on Tuesday that Cox also took advantage of Covid-19 rules allowing him to vote in the Commons by proxy from the BVI, which is facing a probe into its governance.

Although Johnson did not comment on the allegations surrounding Cox, he said that outside interests should not conflict with the role of being an MP. “You must put your job as an MP first and you must devote yourself primarily and above all to your constituents, the people who send you to Westminster.”

However, Cox claimed that the Conservative chief whip, Mark Spencer, was aware he was in the BVI when he voted remotely. “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.

Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, said: “A Conservative MP using a taxpayer-funded office in parliament to work for a tax haven facing allegations of corruption is a slap in the face and an insult to British taxpayers.

“The prime minister needs to explain why he has an MP in his parliamentary party that treats parliament like a co-working space allowing him to get on with all of his other jobs instead of representing his constituents.”

Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, concluded last month that Paterson had breached the rules when he used his parliamentary office to hold 25 meetings with two companies for which he was a paid consultant.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer continued to earning money from legal work even after he was elected as an MP in 2015, according to the House of Commons’ register of interests.

However that ceased in 2019 when Starmer, a prominent barrister and former director of public prosecutions gave up his certificate to practise.

He took the decision after Labour announced it would ban most second jobs if it gained power.

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