Sir Geoffrey Cox is a great public speaker, according to Doug Bushby, an independent councillor in the MP’s south west constituency. “But he’ll need to be to talk himself out of this one.”
The member for Torridge and West Devon has found himself at the centre of yet another Tory sleaze scandal this week.
The former attorney general is reported to have spent four weeks of this year’s lockdown 4,000 miles away from the area working a second job in the British Virgin Islands.
While his constituents back home are among some of the lowest paid people in the UK – wages in Torridge are £4,000 below the national average – Sir Geoffrey has trousered more than £1 million pound in legal work over the last 12 months. That’s on top of his his £82,000 MP’s salary.
And, safe to say, even in this Conservative stronghold, the revelations have not gone down altogether brilliantly.
“How can I put this?” ponders Bushby, who is chair of Torridge District Council. “His absence did not go unnoticed. I’ve had emails about all his extra jobs. And they’re not congratulatory emails wishing him well.”
Residents, reckons Bushby, have a right to expect 100 per cent commitment from their MP. Can one offer that while working as a legal advisor to a Caribbean government? “That’s for others to decide,” the retired garage owner replies. “But probably not.”
Maurice Pearce is less diplomatic about Monday night’s revelations.
The retired shop owner ran the famous Osborn’s Models train shop in the constituency’s biggest town, Bideford, until 2018. As part of that, he has met Sir Geoffrey several times.
“What would I say to him now?” the 74-year-old ponders. “Get your arse back here where you belong and do your job.”
He himself, also calls the MP a great orator. “Churchillian,” the grandfather-of-eight declares. “But I’m not sure he listens quite as well.”
The problem, as many see it, is that this is somehow symbolic of the way the MP interacts with the area.
While there is much genuine admiration for how he and his staff deal with constituent’s individual problems, there is a wider sense that he does not always fight West Devon’s corner as well as he might.
He is seen as rarely mentioning Torridge in parliament, while a failed £10.9 million bid to regenerate Bideford town centre through the government’s Levelling Up Fund is felt to reflect badly on him.
“His job is to influence these decisions and get the area what it deserves,” says Pearce, who has actually voted Tory since he moved to the area 15 years ago. “Well, he’s either not done that because he’s too busy with his other interests, or he’s not done it very well.”
It is a particular sting to many because this is a constituency – despite its affluent villages – in considerable need of levelling up. Wages are among the lowest in the UK here while much of the economy is based around tourism meaning work is oftenseasonal. A third of children live in poverty according to the End Child Poverty campaign.
“We should have been a certain for that levelling up money and nothing,” says David Brenton, a labour member of Torridge District Council.
He himself admits he is not quite a neutral on this issue given party allegiances. Yet, even taking that into account, he describes Sir Geoffrey’s actions as deplorable.
“His brass neck beggars belief,” he says. “Well, now he’s shown us all where his priorities lie: making a few quid.”
Not everyone agrees, it should be said.
At the Bideford Bay Chamber of Commerce, secretary Lesley Dixon-Chatfield says the organisation is entirely relaxed about having an MP spending chunks of time working on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Whenever he has ever been asked to address the chamber, he has always taken the time and done that and he has always been very helpful,” she says. “We have a joke that he would turn up to the opening of an envelope because he is so keen to be at local events.”
She sees no conflict with him having more than one job. Indeed, she herself also has two: one as the secretary of the chamber of commerce and one as an assistant to the Bideford Town Council clerk. “And I hope I do them both equally well,” she says. “Although, of course, you’d have to ask my bosses.”
The concept that others are less happy by the revelations are dismissed.
“This is a very laid back area,” she says. “The attitude around here is to let people get on with what they’re doing.”
Indeed, there may be some truth in this. Of almost a dozen business owners canvassed by The Independent, virtually none wished to voice an opinion on the issue.
Did Fiona Chope, owner of at Walter Henry’s Bookshop, just off Bideford Quay, really not mind her member of parliament had spent lockdown on the other side of the world? “Nothing to do with me,” she said, briskly. “I’ve got customers here.”
For Horace Ford, a pest control worker and himself a former independent councillor, this may be telling.
The 63-year-old himself was astonished by Monday’s revelations, if not necessarily surprised at the concept of parliamentary sleaze.
“The funny thing is, come election time, he’ll get voted in with another large majority because this has become a safe Conservative seat,” the 63-year-old says. “He could spend 12 months of the year over there and I’m not sure he’d get voted out.”