The Conservative leadership has suspended the party whip from Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, in the wake of the cash-for-access allegations involving a fictitious Chinese company.
David Cameron confirmed the move by the chief whip, Michael Gove, and announced that a short disciplinary inquiry into the allegations against Rifkind would also be carried out by the party.
If the internal inquiry finds against Rifkind, he will not be allowed to stand as the Tory candidate for Kensington and Chelsea at the general election, raising the prospect of a contest for one of the party’s safest seats in the country.
At stake is also Rifkind’s role as chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, but the prime minister said he had no powers to intervene. Cameron, who pointed out that he had relinquished the power to appoint the chair of the ISC, said that the chairmanship was a matter for the committee and for parliament. The committee is still expected to publish its report before the general election on privacy and security arising from the leaks by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, even if Rifkind is forced to stand down as chair.
The announcement by the prime minister came after an investigation by the Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches alleged that Rifkind and Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for thousands of pounds. Straw suspended himself from the parliamentary Labour party on Sunday night while both men referred themselves to the parliamentary standards commissioner.
The prime minister said: “These are very serious matters. We have, rightly, very clear rules in this country which is MPs being paid to lobby – that is not acceptable, that is not allowed under the rules. It is right that Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind have referred themselves to the parliamentary commissioner, to have themselves investigated.
“It is also right that, in both cases, while that happens the party whip should be suspended and that is what will happen with Sir Malcolm Rifkind as well as with Jack Straw. Obviously in Sir Malcolm’s case he is still a candidate at the next election so there will be an immediate disciplinary enquiry by the Conservative party to look at this case.”
Cameron indicated that he was powerless to act over Rifkind’s role as chair of the ISC. He said: “On the issue of the intelligence and security committee – that is now, under the new rules, a committee of the House of Commons. The chairman is not appointed by me. The chairman is appointed by the members and I cannot interfere with that. It is a matter for the committee. It is a matter for the House of Commons.”
Rifkind confirmed to the Daily Politics programme on BBC2 that he was facing an internal investigation within the Conservative party. He said: “If it is that, for a short period of time, then we must let that take its course. That is all I am going to comment at the moment.”
The former foreign secretary played down the significance of a failure by Downing Street to express confidence in his continued chairmanship of the ISC. The prime minister’s spokesman said at the daily lobby briefing, shortly before the prime minister’s remarks: “Sir Malcolm is meeting with Michael Gove this morning and I am sure there will be an opportunity for the chief whip and the prime minister to discuss matters following that meeting … Given the allegations that have been made, given the concerns that have been raised, it is right that the [chief whip met Sir Malcolm] as well as the parliamentary standards commissioner process.”
Rifkind said: “I don’t expect the prime minister to reach conclusions when there have been various allegations made and no one is in a position to come to a conclusion at this moment in time.”
The prime minister rejected a suggestion by Ed Miliband that the Tories should follow Labour and impose a ban on MPs holding outside directorships and consultancies in the wake of the new allegations. Cameron said: “On the issue of outside jobs, outside interests, we do have very clear rules. They need to be properly enforced. I don’t favour a complete ban on all outside jobs or interests. Parliament is enriched by the fact that we have, whether it is a GP doing some time in a practice – there is a minister who is an obstetrician – I think he gains useful information from that. There are people who have small businesses or sit on other businesses and draw some interesting experiences from that that they can bring to the House of Commons.
“What I see from the Labour proposal is not outlawing outside business interests but putting a new set of rules which would, for instance, allow someone to work as a trade union official but wouldn’t allow someone to run a family shop or a family publishing business or such like. I think that doesn’t make sense. I think – enforce the rules, total transparency and demonstrate to people that people in parliament are there to work for them, serve the community, serve their country.”
Miliband is expected to put the ban on MPs’ second jobs in his manifesto and say he will consult on proposals to limit the amount of money MPs could earn from outside parliament to 10% or 15% of their salary – in effect, limiting outside earnings to about £10,000. In a letter to the prime minister, he said: “I write this letter to you not just as leader of the Labour party, but as someone who believes that we all need to act to improve the reputation of our parliament in the eyes of the British people.
“I believe MPs are dedicated to the service of their constituents and the overwhelming majority follow the rules. But the British people need to know that when they vote they are electing someone who will represent them directly, and not be swayed by what they may owe to the interests of others.”
Straw allegedly boasted to undercover journalists that he had operated “under the radar” to use his influence and change EU rules on behalf of a firm that paid him £60,000 a year. A recording obtained with a hidden camera shows Straw saying: “So normally, if I’m doing a speech or something, it’s £5,000 a day, that’s what I charge.”
Rifkind reportedly claimed to be able to gain “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world. Journalists recorded him describing himself as self-employed, even though he earns a salary of £67,000 for being MP for Kensington. “I am self-employed – so nobody pays me a salary. I have to earn my income,” he said.
Rifkind told the journalists that he usually charges “somewhere in the region of £5,000 to £8,000” for half a day’s work.