Geoffrey Cox and the British Virgin Islands: the backstory

Tory MP accused of ‘brazen breach of the rules’ after new video footage emerges

Geoffrey Cox
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Former attorney-general Sir Geoffrey Cox has been referred to the parliamentary commissioner for standards over claims that he used his office in Westminster to defend the British Virgin Islands (BVI) government in a corruption case brought by the UK Foreign Office.

Cox, “the highest-earning MP”, has been paid more than £1m in the past year working as a lawyer for clients including the British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, reported The Times today.

He was already facing criticism for casting his ballot in the Commons by proxy while he was abroad defending BVI ministers in April, May and June this year. Now a video has emerged that appears to show him using his MP’s office to carry out private BVI inquiry work.

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Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said she had referred him to the anti-sleaze watchdog. “This appears to be an egregious, brazen breach of the rules,” she said. “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.”

‘A barrister first and politician second’

“Cox sprang on to the political scene in 2018, quoting Milton and the Rolling Stones in a booming baritone from the Conservative conference stage,” wrote Henry Zeffman in The Times. Although he had been an MP for 13 years at the time, many of his colleagues confessed that they knew little about him as he was “continuing his busy practice as one of Britain’s leading barristers”, he said.

Born in Wroughton, Wiltshire, in 1960, Cox attended the private King’s College in Taunton before graduating from Cambridge, and was called to the Bar in 1982. Twenty-three years later he became the MP for Torridge and West Devon, but “only the promise of the job of attorney-general could coax him on to the front bench”, said Zeffman.

He remained in the post throughout the Brexit crisis but was sacked by Johnson in February last year, “leaving him free again to pursue a busy legal life”.

‘Nothing but indefatigable’

For months, day after day, Cox “has been sitting hunched over a pile of court papers” trying to prove to the UK government that the BVI premier Andrew Fahie is innocent of corruption, wrote Patrick Wintour at The Guardian.

Cox, his “baritone voice familiar to Brexit aficionados”, has been “nothing but indefatigable”, said Wintour.

But in Westminster, Hansard shows he has spoken in the chamber only once this year and, according to The Telegraph, “turned up to Parliament to vote on just two days in 13 months”.

Downing Street “appeared to reprimand the Tory MP” yesterday, said the paper, with a spokesman saying “MPs’ primary job is and must be to serve their constituents”.

There was no suggestion that this set-up was breaking any rules, said the BBC’s Nick Eardley yesterday, noting that many MPs have second jobs. But he said the “extent to which he has focused on his legal work” had left “question marks over whether he has got the balance right”.

‘Dangerous scoop’

Using a parliamentary office to conduct private work is another matter, however, as it may be a breach of Commons rules.

No. 10 is facing “Operation: Get The Toothpaste Back in the Tube”, said The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush, explaining that the toothpaste in this case is the “renewed media interest in MPs’ side-hustles”.

Today’s report by The Times is the “most dangerous scoop from the government’s perspective”, said Bush. Cox may even face a recall petition in his seat.

‘Getting to the truth’

A statement on Cox’s website, published today, said the “leading barrister” makes “no secret of his professional activities” and that his role in the BVI inquiry was not to “‘defend’ a tax haven” but to assist it “in getting to the truth”.

It said he had approval from the Office of the Attorney General of England and Wales to work on the BVI inquiry, and assurance from the chief whip that his use of proxy voting was “appropriate”.

“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,” it continued.

“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 practises that profession.”

It added that Cox did not believe he had breached the rules regarding the claim that he was in his parliamentary office while participating in the online BVI hearing, but that he “will of course accept the judgment of the Parliamentary Commissioner or of the Committee on the matter”.

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