Why Geoffrey Cox should stand firm

We would all be the poorer if being a backbench MP became a full-time job

I hold no brief for Sir Geoffrey Cox QC MP. I hardly met him when he served as attorney general from July 2018 to February 2020. But if the Labour party’s latest attack on him forces him to resign, we shall all be the poorer.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said yesterday:

You can be an MP serving your constituents or a barrister working for a tax haven. You can’t be both and Boris Johnson needs to make his mind up which one Geoffrey Cox will be.

That view is at odds with the view of parliament that I — and, I am sure, many others — have held all our lives. Being a backbench MP should not be a full-time job. Our representatives in parliament should remain in touch with the real world.

I was speaking to a former MP the other evening. He was first elected in the days when the route into parliament did not begin in a political party’s research department. Conservative MPs in those days were not former special advisers. They had achieved success in commerce, the professions or other walks of life before offering their experience to the country at large. Labour MPs, who might have worked down the mines or in heavy industry before rising up through the trade union movement, were closely in touch with the needs and hopes of their fellow citizens.

This breadth of experience is particularly important in the law. Our system relies on having three law officers in parliament — attorney general, solicitor general and advocate general for Scotland — who are seasoned politicians as well as being experienced lawyers with sound judgement.

I have written before about how, in recent years, this principle has been honoured more in the breach than the observance. Law officers like Cox and Dominic Grieve QC were sacked for giving advice that prime ministers did not want to hear. Lord Keen of Elie QC resigned instead.

It is highly desirable — though now very challenging — for legal professionals to continue working in the law after they have entered parliament. It’s not just that they need to keep in touch with the problems facing the justice system. They should continue honing their legal skills so that if they are suddenly thrust into the law officers’ department and made QCs — as Alex Chalk was this year — they are in the best possible position to give the government robust, independent advice.

And the same applies to former law officers. It is not completely inconceivable that a future Conservative prime minister might need the services of a lawyer like Cox whose status as Queen’s Counsel did not come with a job in government.

So it is entirely proper for former law officers to return to legal practice, whether or not they remain in parliament. MPs are not required to attend Commons debates — whether actual or virtual — before voting in the division that follow.

Ah, says Labour, but Cox may have worked as a lawyer from his Commons office. Having criticised him for working abroad, his opponents now attack him from practising as a barrister from what looks like a room at Portcullis House. He should have nipped over to his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Or joined the video hearing from the nearest coffee shop.

And what paragraph of the MPs’ code of conduct is this said to have transgressed? This one:

  1. Members are personally responsible and accountable for ensuring that their use of any expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters. Members shall ensure that their use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties. It should not confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves or anyone else, or confer undue advantage on a political organisation.

I will leave readers to decide whether doing paid work from a parliamentary office is a breach of this rule. If it is, then I suspect many other MPs must fall foul of it every day. Exploiting parliamentary facilities for personal gain is clearly improper. But nobody taking part in the video hearing would have known where Cox was.

If he is forced to choose between his career as a barrister and his future as a backbench MP, I suspect Cox will not remain in parliament for a moment longer. The Commons will not only lose a member of real stature in the world outside Westminster. It will also lose potential members who are not prepared to sacrifice their careers for a parliament that has lost its way.

Postscript: This piece has generated some comment on Twitter. I am accused of ignoring some of the counter-arguments. So let me respond.

  1. MPs are paid £81,932 a year plus limited expenses. They should not take on other work.

Most MPs hope to become ministers. Ministers cannot work full-time for their constituents. Most voters understand this. Ministers are paid extra for the extra work they do (though not much extra for junior ministers and some do not receive a ministerial salary at all).

  1. Being a minister confers benefits on constituents. Working as a lawyer does not. Cox should have done something else with his spare time.

But we need good lawyers for appointment as law officers. It’s also a good idea for the lord chancellor to be a lawyer. To maintain their skills, lawyers need to work as lawyers.

  1. You learn more about the real world by answering constituents’ correspondence than by working as a lawyer.

It’s possible to do both.

  1. Constituents don’t want MPs who have second jobs.

Then they wouldn’t elect them. MPs must declare their interests.

  1. Cox should not have acted for ministers of the British Virgin Islands government in a commission of inquiry set up by the UK government, given his own knowledge of how government works.

This is the most preposterous argument of all.

First, it seeks to associate a lawyer with clients who are accused of wrongdoing. Surely, nobody still argues that lawyers are tainted by the allegations against those they represent? Is is seriously to be said that those facing serious allegations should not be entitled to high-quality legal representation?

Secondly, it seems to imply that an inquiry set up by the UK would be more effective if those in the frame received inferior representation. On the contrary, the findings of the commissioner (a retired appeal judge) depend for their authority on all parties being properly represented. Otherwise, those who may be criticised by the commissioner could argue that they didn’t have a fair hearing.

Thirdly, it suggests that Cox is taking advantage of insider information. His time in government may have given him a better understanding of how decisions are taken. But he was never a member of the British Virgin Islands government.

It is in the interests of the UK government that this inquiry is as effective and authoritative as possible. There is no conflict of interest here.

Update 10 November. Cox subsequently issued this statement:

Sir Geoffrey Cox has practised as a Queen’s Counsel in the courts since well before his election in 2005. He is a leading barrister in England and makes no secret of his professional activities. He was asked to advise the attorney general and the elected government of BVI, a British Overseas Territory, in a public inquiry into whether corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty may have taken place in recent years in the Virgin Islands and to carry out a review of its systems of government in preparation for that Inquiry.  Prior to accepting the role, he sought and obtained the approval of the Office of the attorney general of England and Wales that there would be no conflict of interest with his former role as attorney general.

This is not to “defend” a tax haven or, as has been inaccurately reported, to defend any wrongdoing but to assist the public inquiry in getting to the truth. No evidence of tax evasion or personal corruption has been adduced before the inquiry and if it had been, that person would have been required to seek their own representation.

Sir Geoffrey regularly works 70-hour weeks and always ensures that his casework on behalf of his constituents is given primary importance and fully carried out. Throughout this period, he continued to have online meetings with organisations, businesses and individuals within the constituency and it made no difference where he was for that purpose since it was not practicable or desirable at that time to meet face to face. As to the use of the proxy, prior to his visit to the BVI, he consulted the chief whip specifically on this issue and was advised that it was appropriate.

Sir Geoffrey’s view is that it is up to the electors of Torridge and West Devon whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field and who still practices that profession. That has been the consistent view of the local Conservative association and although at every election his political opponents have sought to make a prominent issue of his professional practice, it has so far been the consistent view of the voters of Torridge and West Devon. Sir Geoffrey is very content to abide by their decision.

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.

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