Tory Geoffrey Cox on the brink after 'using MP office for legal work'

Geoffrey Cox finally comes out fighting blaming CHIEF WHIP for approving his trip to Caribbean for lucrative legal work – and says VOTERS will decide if they want a ‘senior and distinguished’ QC as their MP

  • Sir Geoffrey Cox denies breaking ruled after using MP office to do legal work
  • He was representing British Virgin Islands in case brought by UK Foreign Office
  • It followed revelations about the former attorney general’s lucrative second job
  • The Daily Mail revealed he worked in the Caribbean despite lockdown in the UK 

Tory MP Geoffrey Cox today finally came out fighting over his £1m-a-year legal sideline saying the chief whip approved him going to the Caribbean while the Commons sat.

The former Attorney General took aim at Mark Spencer as he insisted it is for voters in his Devon constituency to decide whether they wanted to be represented by a ‘senior and distinguished’ QC. 

He also denied breaching rules by apparently attending a hearing at a corruption commission on the British Virgin Islands by video-link from his parliamentary office.

Sir Geoffrey broke cover for the first time – despite being believed to be abroad – after days of silence amid the allegations.

Boris Johnson is desperately struggling to contain the wider sleaze furore after his abortive bid to save Owen Paterson from punishment for lobbying. The PM is set to be grilled at a press conference at 4.30pm, where he had hoped to focus on progress at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. 

A statement posted on Sir Geoffrey’s website said 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’. 

He said spending weeks on the British Virgin Islands this spring ‘made no difference.. 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,’ the statement said.

‘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.’

The bullish stance came after a stormy phone conversation with the chief whip last night, in which Sir Geoffrey was ordered to spend more time in Parliament.

A Government source said Mr Spencer had ‘reminded him he needs to be physically present in Parliament, representing his constituents’. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid was asked during a round of interviews this morning whether MPs should be able to use their office for work connected with a second job. He replied: ‘No.’  

Mr Javid insisted MPs should ‘spend the vast majority of their time’ on parliamentary and constituency duties, but also cautioned that a complete ban could lead to some politicians leaving the House.  

Sir Geoffrey Cox has been referred to the Commons standards tsar over claims he ‘broke the rules’ by using his parliamentary office to offer legal advice to the British Virgin Islands

The former Cabinet minister has been heavily rebuked following revelations he has been working in the Caribbean tax haven

Geoffrey Cox took aim at chief whip Mark Spencer (pictured right) as he insisted it is for voters in his Devon constituency to decide whether they wanted to be represented by a ‘senior and distinguished’ QC

The chair of the standards committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant, said this morning that the regulations against using parliamentary offices for outside business were ‘really important’.

‘You might end up occasionally meeting other people in your office but you’re not meant to run a commercial operation out of your taxpayer-funded office either in Parliament or in your constituency – it’s a really important, I’d have thought, kind of basic rule,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

Mr Javid said: ‘I think it’s right that those rules allow that flexibility, but I think the most important thing really is that MP, whoever he or she may be, is completely transparent and open, follows all the rules, so that their constituents and the wider public know that they might have another interest,’ he said.

‘Also, I think it’s important that they continue to spend the vast majority of their time on their parliamentary affairs and their constituency affairs.’

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said it was ‘an egregious, brazen breach of the rules’ and has written to standards commissioner Kathryn Stone asking her for ‘guidance on beginning a formal investigation on this matter’.

Ms Rayner said in her letter that the MP’s code of conduct was ‘very clear’ that elected representatives ensure that ‘any facilities and services provided from the public purse is… always in support of their parliamentary duties’ and ‘should not confer any… financial benefit on themselves’.

She added: ‘The member has clearly broken this rule based on the media reports we have seen.

‘Members must be clear that they cannot use the estate for private financial gain and where there is such a stark conflict with public interest, they must face substantial consequences.’

However, in his statement Sir Geoffrey said he does not believe he broke the rules by on one occasion ‘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,’ the statement said. 

‘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.’ 

In his statement Sir Geoffrey said he does not believe he broke the rules by on one occasion ‘being in his office while participating in an online hearing in the public inquiry and voting in the House of Commons’

New footage shows him based in his Commons office in London while appearing to carry out his second job

The most recent register of financial interests showed that Torridge and West Devon MP Sir Geoffrey will earn more than £800,000 from Withers, an international law firm appointed by the British Virgin Islands (BVI) government in January.

Sir Geoffrey also disclosed in the register that from September 28 this year until further notice, he will be paid £400,000 a year by Withers for up to 41 hours of work per month.

In the British Virgin Islands commission of inquiry hearing on September 14, Sir Geoffrey can be heard in the online recording telling the commissioner: ‘Forgive my absence during some of the morning – I’m afraid the bell went off.’

The bell referred to could be the division bell that sounds off across the parliament estate to alert MPs to a vote taking place.

Earlier in the proceedings, Sir Geoffrey appears to vacate his seat for about 20 minutes at around the two-hour mark in the video footage.

His Commons voting record shows that he voted in person on six occasions on September 14 to push through the Government’s health and social care levy.

Ms Rayner said: ‘This appears to be an egregious, brazen breach of the rules.

‘A Conservative MP using a taxpayer funded office in Parliament to work for a tax haven facing allegations of corruption is a slap in the face and an insult to British taxpayers.

‘The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards must investigate this, and the Prime Minister needs to explain why he has an MP in his parliamentary party that treats Parliament like a co-working space allowing him to get on with all of his other jobs instead of representing his constituents.

‘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 as to which one Geoffrey Cox will be.’

The Liberal Democrats also waded in, with the party’s chief whip Wendy Chamberlain urging the QC to ‘save everyone the time and trouble of an investigation’ and ‘come clean now’.

Ms Chamberlain added: ‘The real slap in the face is that this took place on the very same day he voted through a tax hike on millions of hardworking British people.’ 

Sir Geoffrey Cox was ordered to spend more time in Parliament on Tuesday night – as it emerged he made a second trip to a Caribbean tax haven while the Commons was sitting.

Downing Street also distanced itself from Mr Cox, with a No 10 spokesman saying an MP’s ‘primary job’ should be serving their constituents.

But the Mail can reveal that Sir Geoffrey made a second trip to the Caribbean in June as he battled to clear the BVI government in a corruption inquiry launched by the British Foreign Office.

Footage from the inquiry shows that Sir Geoffrey was present in the courtroom where the inquiry was held on the largest of the islands – Tortola – on June 22, when Parliament was sitting in London discussing Covid regulations.

It has also emerged that Sir Geoffrey declared an interest in 2018 after voting against a tightening of anti-money laundering regulations in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, where he defended a former premier against corruption charges. 

The Mail can reveal that Sir Geoffrey made a second trip to the Caribbean in June as he battled to clear the BVI government in a corruption inquiry launched by the British Foreign Office. Footage from the inquiry shows that Sir Geoffrey was present in the courtroom (bottom left and centre) where the inquiry was held on the largest of the islands – Tortola – on June 22, when Parliament was sitting in London discussing Covid regulations

Reporters visiting his West Devon home yesterday were told he was ‘abroad’, despite it being a sitting day at parliament. 

It also emerged Sir Geoffrey voted in person in Parliament on just two days over a 13-month period. The revelations followed controversy over Boris Johnson’s botched attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules. The row came as:

Sir Geoffrey is not accused of breaking the rules in pocketing more than £1million in outside earnings last year on top of his £82,000 MP’s salary.

But senior Tories were privately aghast at his decision to decamp to the Caribbean for up to a month at the tail end of the last lockdown in pursuit of a lucrative contract.

One source said: ‘It is very sad that we are having to tell MPs that they need to put their constituents first.’ 

A Downing Street spokesman said the Prime Minister believed an MP’s ‘primary job is and must be to serve their constituents and to represent their interests in Parliament’.

He added: ‘They should be visible in their constituencies and available to help constituents with their constituency matters.

‘If they’re not doing that, they’re not doing their job and will rightly be judged on that by their constituents.’

Sir Geoffrey took advantage of lockdown rules to cast votes in the Commons by proxy as he worked 4,000 miles away in the Caribbean during April and May

The row over second jobs comes in the wake of a recommendation that former environment secretary Owen Paterson’s should be suspended for six weeks after the Commons Standards Committee found he had broken the centuries-old ban on paid lobbying by MPs.

In the bitter aftermath of the row, Mr Paterson announced he was quitting as MP for North Shropshire after 24 years, as an attempt by the Government to delay his punishment by ripping up the current standards system failed when opposition parties refused to offer their support.

Boris Johnson, who was previously well paid as a backbencher, including for his regular Daily Telegraph column, signalled that those in the Commons should focus on their electorates. 

Tawdry truth about the Dishonourable Member for the Virgin Islands: Shamed Geoffrey Cox has only spoken ONCE in Commons in 18 months… but he’s appeared at Caribbean court for ten days while MPs are sitting, writes GUY ADAMS 

April was hectic for MPs, as the Government attempted to vaccinate Britain out of lockdown while simultaneously navigating the choppy waters of Brexit, the death of Prince Philip, and scandals over Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat and David Cameron’s lobbying.

The three days before Parliament rose for Easter saw a flurry of votes, on everything from national security and immigration to abortion and fire safety. Afternoons took in dozens of debates, some lasting several hours. On the busiest evening, Monday April 26, business was not adjourned until 1.30am.

Throughout this period, Sir Geoffrey Cox QC, the Tory MP for Torridge and West Devon, was – on paper – beavering away at the coal-face.

While his distinctive booming voice wasn’t actually heard in the chamber, he certainly gave every appearance of justifying that juicy £81,932 MP’s salary (plus expenses), turning out to vote six times that day, three times more on the 27, and a further three times on the 28.

That’s what Commons records say, at least. But the reality seems rather different. For on each of those 12 occasions that he exercised his democratic mandate, the 61-year-old former attorney general avoided having to actually troop through the lobby. Instead, he took advantage of temporary Covid rules that allowed MPs to appoint a ‘proxy’ – in his case Deputy Chief Whip Stuart Andrew – to vote on his behalf.

The system, now abolished, had been created to allow Parliamentarians to minimise travel and social contact in the pandemic. In other words, it was designed to allow them to ‘work from home’.

And therein lies what Sir Geoffrey’s great oratorical hero William Shakespeare might call the rub. For the Conservative grandee was neither at his rambling constituency home near Tavistock, where he and wife Jeanie raised their three children, nor the £1.5million flat overlooking a Thames-side park in Battersea in London. Instead, he could be found some 4,000 miles away, on a sun-drenched holiday isle named Tortola, the administrative centre of British Virgin Islands [BVI].

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox in the House of Commons on 25 September 2019

Sir Geoffrey’s trip – at a time when most ordinary Britons were banned from taking holidays – was designed for business rather than pleasure. For as the Daily Mail yesterday revealed, he’d actually adjourned to the Caribbean tax haven to carry out a highly paid second job for the international law firm Withers.

Specifically, the MP – who was sacked as the Government’s top legal officer in February 2020 – was acting on behalf of the British Overseas Territory’s government in a courtroom inquiry, ordered by the UK Foreign Office, into allegations of ‘corruption, abuse of office, or other serious dishonesty’ by its political class. The work, which we shall explore in detail later, was nothing if not highly lucrative.

Commons disclosures show that Cox, who charges almost £1,000 an hour (or £16 a minute) for his legal services, earned almost £300,000 from Withers between late March and the end of April, working for 311 hours in the process. In other words, in the weeks immediately before, during and after his visit, he was devoting an average of 36 hours a week to his legal work.

In the past six months, meanwhile, Sir Geoffrey spent an astonishing 680 hours toiling away for Withers (26 hours a week, on average), raking in some £637,235.11 in the process, and taking his total annual earnings from outside work well over £1million a year.

Side hustle: Geoffrey Cox (bottom left and centre) appears at the BVI inquiry on June 22

During that period, I can further reveal that he made a second trip to the BVI, this time in June. Court records, along with a video, show Sir Geoffrey was present at a day-long hearing at the International Arbitration Centre in Tortola.

Wearing a suit, he sat in front of two watercolour paintings of palm trees at the venue, on a pier overlooking the island’s superyacht-filled marina.

Constituents in Devon, whom he appears to have briefly graced with his presence in late May, are entitled to wonder how, exactly, their MP has managed to find sufficient time to properly represent them.

After all, he certainly hasn’t been raising important issues in the Commons Chamber.

Hansard records show that Sir Geoffrey didn’t make so much as a single speech in Parliament during the 18 months after Boris Johnson sacked him from the Cabinet in February 2020.

In fact, the only time he spoke in that period was on September 13 this year, shortly after 6.30pm, when he uttered a total of 839 words during a debate over a bill involving the changes to the rules for dissolving Parliament. For a man whose distinctive voice and ubiquity at the despatch box saw him nicknamed ‘The Tory Gandalf’ during his time in Theresa May’s post-Brexit administration, it’s quite the comedown.

In contrast to his silence in Westminster, he found sufficient time to appear at the BVI inquiry on ten full days, speaking extensively on each one of them. He appeared in person on May 15 and 20 (having arrived in the country three and a half weeks earlier to begin preparation for the case), on June 22, and according to public records contributed via video link on May 13, June 21, September 14 and October 19-22.

That Parliament was sitting on every single one of these days has only added to the growing sense of outrage. As has the fact that according to Commons expense claims, he billed taxpayers £629 late last year for an iPad ‘to enable effective working while travelling etc and another £419.95 for ‘tablet’ accessories to help with ‘remote working’.’

Yes, this is allowed, but as one Westminster source puts it: ‘On every side of the house, people are, obviously, livid.

‘The rules of proxy voting were designed to allow MPs to isolate and stop the spread of Covid. They were not designed to let you piss off abroad and line your pockets, particularly when normal people have been banned from going on holiday. It’s a terrible, terrible look.’ Further ratcheting up public anger is the nature of the work Cox has chosen to carry out: Representing the BVI government against allegations of corruption being investigated at the behest of the UK Government.

His involvement started in January, when the outgoing governor of the Caribbean tax haven appointed Sir Gary Hickinbottom, a senior British judge, to formally investigate allegations of institutional corruption among its ruling class.

Members of the BVI government are (among other things) accused of giving £29million of Covid relief funds in cash handouts to political allies, misusing £70million of taxpayers’ money that was supposed to be spent on infrastructure projects, and wasting £23million building a pier after awarding construction contracts to cronies.

The wide-ranging inquiry is also examining a £5.1million grant given to an airline for flights to the US which never took off, and £730,000 handed to alleged political cronies in return for building a single wall at a high school.

Cox was hired in January to represent the BVI as it battled these extensive corruption allegations. He actively chose to take the job because the ‘cab rank’ rule, which means barristers have little choice over the clients they represent in UK courts, does not apply to international cases.

His very appointment was something of a PR coup for the tax haven, which issued press releases crowing about the former Cabinet minister’s arrival in the country on April 26.

The subsequent hearings resulted in the bizarre spectacle of a sitting British MP being paid to help undermine representatives of his own country in an international court case.

At one point, Cox appeared to turn on the UK by complaining that the Foreign Office-ordered inquiry amounted to a judicial review of almost every major decision taken by the BVI cabinet in the last 12 to 15 years. It’s safe to say that the whole thing went down like a lead balloon back in London. ‘The Foreign Office is absolutely furious,’ says a Whitehall insider.

‘Here they are, trying to take on corruption in a far-flung territory, and they find a British MP being paid a fortune to fly out there, in lockdown, and earn a small fortune attempting to get the subject of this inquiry off the hook.’

What is all the more scandalous – to critics, at least – is that all of Cox’s lucrative outside work is entirely legal. Commons rules place no limits on the outside work MPs can take on, or the amount of cash they can earn from second or even third jobs, provided they declare them.

On that front, during his 16 years in Parliament, Cox has managed to occasionally fall foul of the rules. In February 2016, for example. MPs on the Standards Committee found that he had committed a ‘serious’ breach of rules by failing to declare more than £400,000 of outside earnings from legal work.

His work in Caribbean tax havens has also made awkward headlines. In 2014, taxpayers were forced to stump up £1,800 to fly him home from the Cayman Islands when Parliament was unexpectedly recalled during a recess to discuss an emergency in Iraq. And in 2018, Cox provided support to the governments of both the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans in Parliament in 2018, when he spoke repeatedly against a proposal to increase transparency in tax havens.

He said such a move would involve interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries in a way that was ‘beneath the dignity of Parliament’.

How ironic that the globe-trotting Sir Geoffrey should today stand accused of compromising that very dignity.

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