David Hencke, who broke the story of MPs tabling parliamentary questions on behalf of private interests in 1994, reflects on why Boris Johnson’s actions are a threat of a different kind to Britain’s political system

‘Cash for questions’ was one of the worst parliamentary scandals in recent history. Along with the MPs’ expenses affair, it ranks as a nadir in British politics.

Greedy MPs were taking wads of cash in brown envelopes from Mohamed al Fayed, the then owner of Harrods, to table parliamentary questions on his behalf. When it came to the second scandal, these MPs were putting in fanciful and huge claims for duck houses, moats, and heating their stables as genuine working expenses to be paid for by the taxpayer.

But both of these scandals are of nothing compared to Boris Johnson’s attempts to scrap the present standards system and return to a dark age in which MPs’ mates could cover-up bribes and hidden payments in kind and cash – all to save Owen Paterson, one former Cabinet minister caught in an “egregious” act of obtaining hundreds of thousands of pounds in illicit lobbying. 

Back in 1994, I broke the story of the £50,000 ‘cash for questions’ scandal in the Guardian, which led to the ministerial resignations of then Conservative MP Neil Hamilton (now the Leader of UKIP) and his colleague Tim Smith; and the eventual bankruptcy of Westminster’s then premier lobbying company, Ian Greer Associates, which had blue chip clients on its books including British Airways, Cadbury Schweppes and Coca Cola.

What was extraordinary was that the story was already a decade old by then. Under the electoral success of Margaret Thatcher, a proportion of backbench Conservative MPs – confident of continual electoral victory under her leadership – sought to enrich themselves with a bonanza of undeclared free trips, living the high life in luxury hotels, and accepting thousands of pounds worth of ‘under the table’ cash payments from Ian Greer Associates for introducing it to new clients.

They were helped by a weak parliamentary scrutiny system – there was a committee that looked at members interests but it was pretty ineffective – and a completely unregulated lobby system. This had carried on under John Major until the dam finally broke.

Hamilton and his wife Christine, for instance, took a £5,000 freebie from Mohamed al Fayed to stay a week in the luxurious Ritz Hotel in Paris and another freebie from another client of Ian Greer Associates, to stay in a luxury hotel in the US. Neither was declared until they became public. According to Ian Greer’s memoirs, his client, British Airways, was inundated with Conservative MPs wanting free international trips or upgrades to India, America, Thailand and other favourite long-haul destinations.

In the aftermath of the scandal, it was revealed that dozens of Conservative MPs had benefitted from free help from Ian Greer Associates at election time or were revealed to have accepted money from the firm. Sir Gordon Downey, when he investigated the allegations, discovered that the late Sir Michael Grylls, chair of the Conservative backbench trade and industry committee, was on a secret £10,000 a year retainer with the company to introduce clients. He was also receiving bonuses worth at least seven times as much for introducing new business, as well as a share of the fees.

So prestigious was Ian Greer Associates that then Prime Minister John Major turned up as guest of honour at the firm’s 10th anniversary party, though he himself knew nothing of the hidden payments to Conservative backbenchers.

That is why I was not surprised that Major condemned Boris Johnson’s move last week over the Owen Paterson affair as “shameful, wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government” which “also had the effect of trashing the reputation of Parliament”.

When the report on ‘cash for questions’ by Sir Gordon Downey became public, he immediately asked Lord Michael Nolan to set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life. This led to the establishment of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, the creation of a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, and a code of behaviour for all people in public life.

By contrast, Johnson initiated this action to lower standards in public life, make MPs less accountable, and encourage more MPs to get second jobs and put their constituents second.

Johnson’s actions are not only shameful but an overt attack on the very foundation of an open, democratic society in this country. By proposing to tear up the system that rightly polices and scrutinises the behaviour of MPs, he was sanctioning the return of sleaze – an environment in which it is tempting for MPs to accept or even tout for secret payments, obtain favours for clients, and make a lot of illicit money, knowing that their mates will protect them.

The big difference now is that it not the odd £5,000 or even £50,000. As Owen Patterson has revealed, the amount of money being made by MPs in this way could be as high as £500,000.

Britain’s standards in public life were once the envy of the world. Now – with serious questions being raised about MPs’ private interests, cronyism prevalent in the award of Government contracts, peerages and top jobs in its gift – its political system is rapidly turning into a sewer of corruption.


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