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Moonlighting MPs bring Parliament into disrepute

SOLOMON HUGHES takes a look at the jobs on the side taken by Labour’s Jess Phillips and the Tories’ David Warburton

SHOULD MPs moonlight? The case against MPs’ second jobs is twofold. First, they are paid £77,000 to represent the nation, so they shouldn’t be working on the side. 

Second, they often get these extra jobs because they are MPs and the moonlighting is filled with conflicts of interest that distort democracy. 

Let’s take two recent examples from both the Labour and Tory parties.

Leading Corbyn-sceptic Labour MP Jess Phillips has an £8,000-a-year sideline working for top Tory donor and former Conservative deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft’s firm. 

Phillips has been deputy editor of The House magazine, a glossy weekly aimed at MPs which has been owned by Ashcroft since last October. Phillips says the work takes two hours per month.

The House is “Parliament’s very own ‘in-house’ magazine” which is “delivered directly into the pigeon-holes” of every MP. 

The glossy magazine specialises in publishing positive profiles of MPs illustrated with attractive, well-lit photographs of them. It appeals to MPs’ vanity while also appealing to advertisers who want to reach them, promising corporations or lobbyists it is “closer than any other political magazine to the most powerful people in UK politics.” 

While The House generally publishes entirely friendly profiles of Tory ministers or Labour MPs, it has recently carried unusually negative pieces about Corbyn-supporting MPs like Chris Williamson.
Ashcroft bought The House in around 2012 when he took over the Dods Group, a parliamentary events and  information service. The Dods Group publishes The House and the PoliticsHome website and runs a very extensive set of meetings at party conferences which bring together MPs and corporate sponsors. 

Both The House and Dods meetings have a cash-for-access feel to them, offering corporations a route to reach MPs.  

Ashcroft bought the Dods Group when he was losing influence in the Tory Party because of a feud with David Cameron. It looks like he bought the Dods Group to build his political influence and increase his political connections.

Phillips, who was first elected in 2015, has become one of the media’s favourite Labour critics of Corbyn. Asked last month by Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, whether she thought “Jeremy Corbyn would be a good prime minister,” she said: “I’d have to say no.”

I asked her if a Labour MP working for such a prominent Tory activist’s firm was a good idea but got no response.

Ashcroft bought Dods, the publisher of The House magazine, after he fell out with Cameron in 2010. Ashcroft was enraged Cameron would not make him a minister because of his offshore tax arrangements. 

Ashcroft suspended his donations to the Tory Party and began expanding his media interests. As well as buying Dods he also bought “grassroots” Tory website ConservativeHome and helped set up a company called Biteback Publishing. Ashcroft’s media expansion looks like an attempt to keep political influence when his spat with Cameron reduced his Tory position. He used Biteback to publish his “biography” of Cameron, which repeated bizarre and almost certainly untrue rumours about Cameron and a stunt with a pig.  

Ashcroft uses ConservativeHome to have a platform inside the Tory Party. He hasn’t used Dods and The House in such a naked way, but it does look like a means to keep a hand in with politics. 

Since Cameron exited, Ashcroft has also become a big Tory donor again, dining with Theresa May at Chequers. 

For Phillips, Corbyn’s rise has reduced her career path inside Labour, so a media presence helps build her profile. 

She is deputy editor of The House, while the editor is Tory MP Sir Graham Brady — he gets £26,000 for the job. 

Brady is a powerful Conservative MP because he is chair of the 1922 Committee which represents the interests of all Tory backbenchers.

David Warburton MP, who is a parliamentary assistant to Education Secretary Damian Hinds, also moonlights with a job running a PR firm whose recent clients include Burger King and Murdoch’s News International.

Since 2015 Warburton has been the Tory MP for Somerset and Frome. This January he was made a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the Department for Education. A PPS is not a ministerial role, so avoiding such a strict conflict of interest role, but it is an important job shaping Department for Education policy. The main job of a PPS is to liaise between ministers and backbenchers — Warburton says, as PPS, he will “keep ministers in touch with back-bench opinion on education policy.” 

Warburton also says, as PPS, he “serves as a channel of communication between the government department and relevant organisations outside the House of Commons.”

This June Warburton announced he had a new job, being paid £1,000 a month to be chair of a “strategic consultancy connecting global brands” called Vouch, working eight hours per month.  
Vouch puts on corporate events and does business-to-business marketing. Its clients include firms with an interest in education policy. Vouch says its recent clients include Burger King, food giant Mondelez, which owns Cadbury’s, Oreo cookies and other foods aimed at schoolchildren, Disney and Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. Murdoch has made a number of failed attempts to run British schools.

Warburton is chairman of Vouch. The firm uses his position as an MP in its marketing. On its website it describes him as “a British politician” who is “the Conservative MP for Somerton & Frome.” It even points out that “in 2018, he was appointed as parliamentary private secretary to the Department of Education.”

I asked Warburton if there was any conflict of interest in his Vouch job and his PPS role. He responded: “I’d say that no, Vouch happily has nothing whatsoever to do with education in any form or in any way. And I suspect they mention me being a PPS on their website because I am one, so it’s my job and would be a bit weird if they didn’t!”

Vouch likes to splash out in a way that is a million miles from schools. This June he ran events at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity — this is an advertising festival at the glamorous south-of-France city. 

Vouch ran events on a “three-level 30m superyacht” in the Cannes marina it called the “Vouch Voyager.” 

It charged clients a minimum £20,000 to run events on the yacht, with “rosé, beers, soft drinks and buffet included.”

Solomon Hughes writes every Friday in the Morning Star. You can follow him on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.

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