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Editorial: The Tories are feeling the heat on sleaze – time for the left to press our advantage

LABOUR’S use of an opposition day debate tomorrow to force a vote on banning paid directorships and consultancies puts Tory MPs on the spot.

Conservatives will be kicking themselves that their bid to change the rules on standards to shield one of their number — the now-resigned North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson — has backfired so spectacularly.

The furore has taken the shine off Boris Johnson’s leadership and given Labour its first poll leads over the government since the start of the year.

Keir Starmer’s determination to keep the pressure on is correct, even if the Labour leader’s proposals fall short of the ban on second jobs promised by Labour under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and currently in a private member’s Bill submitted by Leeds East MP Richard Burgon.

The Tories are vulnerable on corruption. This is not because there is any truth in Starmer’s assertion that British public life was characterised by “high standards … play[ing] by the rules and relatively low levels of corruption” before Johnson “tarnished” it. 

From Tony Blair’s Bernie Ecclestone episode to David Cameron’s outsourcing of health legislation to consultants McKinsey, British politics has long had a “for sale” sign attached. 

Indeed, no other country in the world has an upper house to rival the House of Lords, where seats are handed to government cronies and political party donors with impunity. 

If Starmer was right about our supposed global reputation for integrity, it would be hard to explain why Blair in the 1990s and Cameron in the 2000s both vowed to be the prime minister who would “clean up” politics. 

The results were disappointing: Labour left office in 2010 amid the “cash for influence scandal” that saw Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon, Margaret Moran and Stephen Byers suspended from the party, while David Cameron’s lobbying Bill left lobbyists alone while trying to suppress the voices of trade unions and charities.

What makes the Johnson government stand out is both the sheer scale of corruption and its context. 

The Paterson affair was the straw that broke the camel’s back: the reaction reflects anger at ministers’ blatant use of the pandemic to reward friends and enrich family, such as the contracts former health secretary Matt Hancock awarded to his sister’s company and his pub landlord (or for that matter the paid adviser role given to his mistress).

This unprincipled exploitation of a national emergency is doubly toxic when millions are mourning loved ones lost to Covid and ministers are pleading a lack of cash to justify attacks on the wages of low-paid public servants, including in the health service.

Tory MPs should be shamed if they vote down Labour’s proposals tomorrow.

Yet the opposition could be setting its sights much higher. Anger at corruption is an opportunity to campaign for serious reform going way beyond a mere ban on commercial consultancy work.

It is a moment to raise the very existence of the House of Lords. Its abolition would not merely be a blow against corruption but one for democracy, as well as advancing an overdue Britain-wide debate on devolving political power and the potential of a federal second chamber of the nations and regions.

It is likewise a moment to highlight the root cause of much corruption in public life — the huge role of outsourcing and privatised delivery of public services. A Labour call for all NHS services to be brought back in house would be immensely popular.

Starmer’s reluctance to take these steps is obvious. He is not at heart a reformer but an Establishment figure keen to return Britain to a pre-crash, pre-Brexit liberal consensus and marginalise advocates of radical change. 

But that does not mean that the left and labour movement are incapable of pushing Labour policy in this direction. The Tories are on the back foot. It is time to press home our advantage.

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