Crisis Deepens for Johnson as Sleaze Row Engulfs Senior Tory

Crisis Deepens for Johnson as Senior U.K. Tory Accused of Sleaze

The U.K. opposition called for a parliamentary investigation into former Conservative cabinet minister Geoffrey Cox, as the scandal over sleaze and lobbying engulfing Boris Johnson’s ruling party gains momentum.

Labour accused Cox, who had been a leading government figure in the political wrangling over Brexit, of violating the code of conduct for members of Parliament after the Times newspaper posted footage of him allegedly using his Parliament office to do outside legal work.

In a statement on his website, Cox said that he “does not believe that he breached the rules” but will “of course” accept any judgment on the issue by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, or by the House of Commons Committee on Standards.

The Tory MP was already under fire over reports about a second job advising the government of the British Virgin Islands, from where he had been voting by proxy in the House of Commons during the pandemic. That earned an indirect rebuke from Johnson, whose spokesman told reporters Tuesday the premier expects MPs to spend the majority of time serving constituents.

The crisis is intensifying for Johnson, as the accusations of sleaze -- British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals -- continue to mount against his government and party.

Johnson came under severe scrutiny over his attempt last week to rip up Parliament’s rules on standards rather than accept the suspension of Owen Paterson, a Tory MP and former minister found guilty of paid advocacy.

The move to help his friend Paterson stoked wider divisions in the Conservative Party, with 13 members rebelling against the move and dozens more abstaining. In a Commons debate on Monday, several Tories spoke out against the plan and one prominent MP called on Johnson to apologize, saying his refusal to do so displayed a lack of leadership.


But the real danger for Johnson may still be emerging, because while the backlash over Paterson ultimately forced him into a U-turn, his actions have put the British media spotlight firmly onto the actions of other Tories -- and especially the paid work they are doing on top of their parliamentary duties.

Cox garnered significant attention after the official Register of Members’ Financial Interests showed he’s earning almost 1 million pounds ($1.35 million) from legal work this Parliamentary session, including a 400,000-pound role requiring him to work 41 hours a month.

Yet it’s the allegation that he used his office in Parliament to do work on behalf of the British Virgin Islands that Labour focused on. The code of conduct states MPs must only use public resources, including facilities, for parliamentary work. 

According to the Times, its footage shows Cox taking part remotely in a BVI hearing on Sept. 14, on the same day that the former attorney general voted six times in person in the U.K. Parliament.


Cox’s alleged actions represent a “slap in the face and an insult to British taxpayers,” Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said in a statement. “This appears to be an egregious, brazen breach of the rules.”

In his statement, Cox said he “makes no secret of his professional activities” and that “casework on behalf of his constituents is given primary importance and fully carried out.”

He also wrote that he obtained approval from the Attorney General’s office before accepting the BVI role, and that he had consulted the Conservative Party’s chief whip about using proxy voting from the Caribbean territory, “and was advised that it was appropriate.”

During the government’s media round on Wednesday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News that while he didn’t want to comment on any individual cases, MPs shouldn’t use their parliamentary offices for work in second jobs.

“The rules are clear, and of course all MPs should be expected to observe that at all times,” he said.

That is a markedly different tone to the strong defense mounted last week by the government of another prominent Brexiteer in Paterson, which blew up so spectacularly for Johnson.

In a further blow to the prime minister, Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie resigned as vice chair of the Conservative Party. “I have come to the decision that I need to take a step back from the demands of the role to focus on representing my constituents,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.