Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently declared that he does not believe the United Kingdom is “remotely a corrupt country.” And indeed, international indexes (such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index) indicate that most observers perceive the UK as having high levels of public integrity. But while the British state may be free from the routine bribery and embezzlement that is common elsewhere, the UK Parliament is awash in conflicts of interest. Such self-dealing by the political class—what many in the UK press have dubbed “sleaze”—suggests that the country suffers more from corruption (albeit a different kind of corruption) than many observers realize.
The most recent “sleaze” scandal—and the one that prompted Prime Minister Johnson’s defense of the UK’s overall record on corruption—involved Conservative MP Owen Paterson, a former Environment Minister. Paterson received hundreds of thousands of pounds consulting for a clinical diagnostics firm and a meat processor, in violation of the UK’s longstanding ban on MPs acting as paid lobbyists. Even more damning, Paterson pressed the government to act against the meat processor’s competitor, and the government awarded the diagnostics testing company a £133 million pound contract despite the company lacking adequate equipment. While this scandal may have revealed especially egregious conflicts-of-interest, it is not an isolated incident. Consider just a handful of additional examples of instances in which MPs earned outside income from positions that would seem to create a serious conflict:
- Sir Geoffrey Cox, Britain’s former Attorney General, earned more than £1 million for outside legal work. He faced ethical questions after footage emerged of him defending the British Virgin Islands’ corruption record from his House of Commons office.
- Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, earned £25,000 advising a company that makes hand sanitizer, even as he chaired a task force that recommended clarifying COVID-19 rules on hand sanitizer.
- Sajid Javid, the current Health Minister and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, serves on J.P. Morgan’s advisory council, for which he is paid £75,000 a year. In other words, one of the world’s largest financial institutions pays a senior MP in the governing party, who has considerable power and influence.
In contrast to the Paterson case, these and many other cases do not necessarily involve violations of UK laws or Parliamentary ethics rules. While MPs cannot work as lobbyists, the UK permits MPs to hold second jobs, including jobs as advisors and consultants for corporations. Outside employment for large corporations can pay considerably more than MPs earn from their modest Parliamentary salaries—a recipe for conflicts of interest.
Prime Minister Johnson’s government has taken some halting steps to address these controversies, but has also sought to limit outside scrutiny and curbs on self-dealing. In response to a report from the Parliament’s Standards Committee, which found that Paterson’s had engaged in “an egregious case of paid advocacy,” Johnson ordered Conservative MPs to overrule Paterson’s suspension and to replace the Standards Committee with a new body under his party’s control. Johnson eventually backed down—and Paterson resigned—after a public outcry that included some of his biggest supporters in Britain’s tabloid press. But despite Johnson’s contrition following blowback from the Paterson scandal, he still has not proposed meaningful measures that would address the underlying problem. True, he passed a purported ban on MPs holding jobs as political consultants, but this came with no timeline for implementation and focused more on punishing MPs who prioritized their second jobs over their responsibilities as MPs than it did on preventing conflicts of interest. Undoubtedly, banning MPs from advising on politics is a step in the right direction, but it falls well short of a prohibition on lawmakers profiting from work in the private sector.
The pervasiveness of the self-dealing in the UK Parliament has undermined the ability of the British government to provide public services. To be sure, the UK’s Public Contracts Regulations provide strong measures to ensure the integrity of government procurement processes, but pervasive conflicts of interest have nevertheless taken a toll on the quality of British governance. For example, during the early days of the pandemic, many companies recommended by MPs and other political insiders received contracts to provide pandemic-related personal protective equipment through a “VIP lane.” Indeed, nearly a quarter of almost $22 billion in pandemic-related contracts went to politically connected firms. Moreover, a study by Transparency International found “systemic bias” in favor of companies with links to the ruling Conservative Party. As a result, firms that had no prior experience and that provided unsuitable items received contracts, undermining Britain’s COVID-19 response.
These pervasive conflicts of interest also contribute to a growing sense among the British public that something has gone deeply wrong with UK democracy. A recent poll found that 63 percent of British citizens believed that politicians were “in it only for themselves,” up from 48 percent in 2014. News that MPs exploit their public positions to receive lucrative consulting contracts undoubtedly fuels resentment. Even before the “sleaze” scandals splashed across the front pages, a growing majority told pollsters that British democracy is rigged to serve the rich and influential. Such views fueled the Brexit vote, and they threaten to open the door to more radical forms of populism.
The longstanding perception that the UK is not a corrupt country—that corruption is something that happens in more benighted parts of the world—has led to complacency about conflicts of interest in the UK Parliament. Fortunately, such apathy appears to be coming to an end. Not only has Johnson paid a steep political price for these scandals, but members of his own party are pressing him to be more aggressive in confronting corruption. Given the high stakes, we can only hope that the Paterson affair leads not only to a ban on MPs taking jobs in the private sector but also to new financial disclosure requirements and criminal sanctions for MPs who exploit their public positions for personal gain.