Politics

Geoffrey Cox accrued at least £6m from second job while a parliamentarian | Geoffrey Cox


Sir Geoffrey Cox has earned at least £6m from his second job since he entered parliament, a Guardian analysis reveals, and records show that he skipped 12 recent votes on days when he was doing paid legal work.

The revelations came as Boris Johnson, the prime minister, took the unusual step of seeking to reassure the public that the UK was “not remotely a corrupt country” as the Conservative party continued to be engulfed in a slew of sleaze allegations.

Johnson pointedly did not defend the under-fire Cox, however, whose earnings since becoming a Conservative MP in 2005 have come under intense scrutiny in recent days following the revelations that he spent a month in the British Virgin Islands this year doing paid legal work.

Further questions about Cox’s commitment to his job as MP are likely to be raised after the Guardian also discovered that he had skipped at least 12 parliamentary votes on four days when he appeared by video link in a hearing for the British Virgin Islands (BVI) authorities this autumn.

In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson stressed that MPs should always put their constituents’ interests first, and avoid paid lobbying.

Johnson added: “The rules say … 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. The most important thing is, those who break the rules must be investigated and should be punished.”

He was speaking a week after whipping Conservative MPs to back an amendment that sought to avoid punishment for Owen Paterson – a former cabinet minister found to have engaged repeatedly in paid lobbying – by tearing up the parliamentary standards system.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, condemned Johnson’s failure to say sorry for the Paterson fiasco. “Boris Johnson’s refusal to apologise proves that he doesn’t care about tackling the corruption that has engulfed Downing Street, his government and the Conservative party,” she said. “He thinks it’s one rule for him and another rule for everyone else.”

Johnson, speaking in Glasgow, where he was paying a brief visit to the Cop26 climate negotiations, said there should be “appropriate sanctions”, for MPs who were “not putting the interests of their constituents first”.

Cox, a former attorney general, originally came under scrutiny when the Daily Mail reported that he had been voting by proxy from the BVI where he was working during part of the pandemic, representing BVI authorities at an inquiry into allegations of corruption ordered by the Foreign Office.

He is now facing questions over his behaviour following MPs being obliged to vote in person again after June, including whether he prioritised his paid legal appearances over attending parliamentary proceedings.

Cox has been approached for comment on whether any absence to do paid work was permitted by the party.

A Whitehall insider who worked with Cox defended his continuing to work as a lawyer, saying for most MPs the role in parliament “makes them money” but that his “loses him money”.

Only last month Cox missed eight votes on the environment bill, one on a Labour fire-and-rehire bill, and one on the Independent Expert Panel Recommendations for Sanctions and the Recall of MPs Act 2015.

He was also not present for a Labour opposition day debate on squeezed living standards in September, and one on small businesses in October. On all the dates – 22, 20 and 19 October and 21 September – he was appearing at the public inquiry, according to videos on the British Virgin Islands Commission of Inquiry website. It is not clear from his video background where Cox was on these occasions.

On a fifth occasion, on 14 September, Cox appeared to be present in a parliamentary office while on video for the inquiry, leading to a complaint that he had breached the rules banning MPs from using Commons facilities for private work.

Making his first public comments on the affair on Wednesday, Cox did not deny that he had used his parliamentary office for paid work. He insisted that 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”.

A statement said: “As for the allegation that he breached the parliamentary code of conduct on one occasion, on 14 September 2021, by being in his office while participating in an online hearing in the public inquiry and voting in the House of Commons, he understands that the matter has been referred to the parliamentary commissioner and he will fully cooperate with her investigation. 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.”

The whips’ office believe Cox did qualify for a proxy vote earlier in the year and that the chief whip, Mark Spencer, was told in advance he would be working on a big case abroad.

However, a source insisted it was not right that the government necessarily approved of his location and what he was doing. “It’s not our place to sanction MPs’ locations and travel plans, even if he was raking it in from a nice sunny island.”

Some Conservative MPs are furious with what they regard as liberties being taken by the “old guard”, including Cox. One predicted there would be “major trouble” with the whips’ office given the level of dissatisfaction, saying: “We’re heading for civil war.”

A spokesman for the chief whip said: “Around 330 Conservative MPs, and a majority of opposition MPs, were granted … proxy votes in order to assist with tackling the pandemic at a time when physical attendance in the Commons was actively discouraged by the parliamentary authorities. All MPs were expected to follow proceedings and participate virtually. They were also expected to continue performing their primary task of serving their constituents.”

The BVI inquiry videos show that Cox made arguments against “open registers” for politicians’ interests at the public inquiry in June.

He told the inquiry: “Let me be quite candid. There are real drawbacks to open registers. It becomes a political tool for every … many, many, frivolous complaints are made. It is a profound invasion into a legislator’s private life, because what happens is, as you can imagine, stories get written, minor infractions are written up to be morally shameful or even impute dishonesty.”

Cox is also facing a conflict of interest claim after it emerged that he had lobbied against imposing tougher financial regulations on the Cayman Islands just months after he gained more than £40,000 from legal firms based in the tax haven.

On Wednesday, Cox’s whereabouts remained a mystery, despite his statement. Staff at the MP’s office declined to respond to questions about where he was, or even whether he was in the UK.

Officials from the BVI commission of inquiry, for which Cox is representing some government ministers over allegations of corruption, said they did not know if or when he would return to the Caribbean.

In his most recent role in the inquiry, from 19 to 22 October, Cox appeared at hearing sessions for almost 30 hours in total. While he was listed in the official transcript as being there in person, on associated video footage Cox was shown appearing virtually, but with the background blurred, meaning it was difficult to know where he might be. An official from the inquiry said he was appearing remotely.



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