Cash for access: Rifkind and Straw’s actions are the norm in parliament
Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifikind must feel pretty sore today.
The two former ministers' faces were splashed across the front page of the Telegraph, after they were caught on camera speaking to undercover reporters posing as lobbyists. Both men were keen to emphasise their ability to open doors at the top of government and both men were apparently willing to accept money to do so.
Since the news broke, both Straw and Rifkind have been suspended from their parties. But while it's perfectly understandable that they should be stretched out on the rack for this, it's far less clear that they have done anything other than the parliamentary norm.
As Rifkind himself explained to the Today programme this morning, there are countless other MPs who have accepted similar paid advisory roles with foreign companies. In order to discover this, you don't need to hire a crack team of undercover reporters, you simply need to spend five minutes scrolling through the register of interests of MPs, publicly available here.
The list contains literally hundreds of MPs and peers who have accepted roles very similar to the fictional ones offered to Rifkind and Straw. These roles were arranged off-camera so we cannot be sure exactly what these politicians agreed to do for their money. Of course it's perfectly possible that they were paid tens of thousands of pounds a year for their vast business expertise. After all, parliament's legions of former special advisors and councillors are well known for their skills in such matters. Alternatively it could be that these companies understand that hiring an MP or peer gives them access to levers of government they otherwise wouldn't have had.
And these roles are not just perks of the system. For many politicians they are the system itself. Some politicians are paid more for their so-called second jobs than they are for their first. Again, just take a look through the list. There are millions of pounds flooding through parliament's doors in consultancy fees every year. This money is not charity. These companies are buying a service. If he who pays the piper, calls the tune, then parliament is an orchestra for hire.
Similarly, there is nothing new about paying for access to government. On the contrary it is accepted practice and done quite openly. There is even a price list you can read for yourself on the Conservative party website. For £50,000 a year, members of the Tory 'leader's group' can secure regular access to cabinet ministers and even the prime minister himself. "Members are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches," boasts the Conservative party's website. Enterprising business moguls with cash to spare can even buy one-to-one access with ministers. At the Conservative's recent Black and White ball, they put them all in a printed brochure to ease the sale.
Why bother paying some ex-minister for access, when you can just go straight to the top? pic.twitter.com/NRawE81O8R
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) February 23, 2015
In fact you have to wonder why any aspiring Chinese lobbyist would bother risking scandal by paying for access to washed-up former ministers like Straw and Rifkind, when the real deal can be bought quite openly, with a free glass of champagne thrown in to seal the deal.
All of which must leave Straw and Rifkind feeling pretty hard done by this morning. And in some ways they are right to feel so. Because the truth is that these two men are not the problem. They are not even the worst symptom of the problem. Suspending Jack Straw and stripping Malcolm Rifkind of his ISC chairmanship will do absolutely nothing to dent the ongoing scandal of cash for access in parliament. In fact it will barely even scratch the surface.