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Rishi Sunak is continually being tested on Tory sleaze

As trust in politicians hits a seven-year low, the PM is dogged by his predecessors’ peerage nominations and the scandal of MPs’ consultancy work.

By Rachel Wearmouth

To say Rishi Sunak’s campaign to convince people he is the saviour of the Conservative Party remains a struggle would be something of an understatement. The next election will be fought on the cost-of-living crisis – but voters’ improving circumstances are not the only metrics No 10 should be studying.

Research by Edelman released last month showed that trust in government has fallen to a seven-year low at 27 per cent, and that an astonishing 85 per cent of voters think the way politicians behave undermines what faith people do have in them.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s last stand]

MPs rarely score highly in such polling but the past 48 hours will have done nothing to help. On Friday, the Sun reported that Liz Truss is recommending a number of her close allies for peerages: Mark Littlewood, a think tank boss, the Tory donor Jon Moynihan, the Brexit campaigner Matthew Elliott and Truss’s former deputy chief of staff, now a lobbyist, Ruth Porter. All aided Truss’s disastrous rise to power and mini-Budget, which crashed the economy and pushed up people’s mortgage costs, but their failure is likely to be rewarded with seats in the House of Lords.

Truss’s list was little better than Boris Johnson’s. He apparently wants his father, Stanley Johnson, to have a knighthood (something just 14 per cent of people support) and dozens of other Westminster operators to be honoured.

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A PM has the power to block their predecessor’s suggested appointments, but it is a long-standing convention not to do so as many argue it would set a dangerous precedent. It certainly isn’t the first time the system has been used to give political pals a leg-up (remember Tony’s cronies?) but it’s becoming clear the public finds it intolerable.

The same could be said of MPs taking lucrative second jobs with consultancies. A sting by the Led by Donkeys campaign provoked anger and disgust after it revealed that former Tory ministers Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng were prepared to offer their services as consultants to a fake overseas company.

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Nothing they did was against the rules. MPs can seek employment outside of their work in parliament. Indeed, research by Transparency International has found 170 ex-ministers and officials (some of whom no longer work in parliament) have taken jobs linked to their old policy briefs since 2017. 

Boris Johnson attempted a crackdown on second jobs the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal and defied precisely no one’s expectations when he later U-turned on most of his reforms. Tightening the rules on peerages and parliamentarians’ outside interests is a complicated business that would put Sunak on a collision course with his own MPs. But given the dismay people increasingly feel about the state of politics, doing nothing carries a risk of its own.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Boris Johnson can roar, but Rishi Sunak has no reason to fear him]