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”.’
Cox has appeared at Caribbean court for ten days while MPs are sitting in Commons (file image)
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.