Comment: Yeo has been hiding in plain sight for years

Tim Yeo has two motives when it comes to his energy work: saving the world and personal gain.

This is not a damning comment or even a subjective one. It is a statement of fact. Yeo is, as he told Politics.co.uk last week, "a robust advocate for the need for action to address climate change". His job as chair of the Commons' energy and climate change committee makes him one of the most influential policy influencers in the country on energy and climate change.

He is also very well paid by private companies which are directly interested in the area of policy his parliamentary work focuses on. Take the 2012/13 financial year, for example.

Between May 2012 and May 2013 he earned £43,400 from AFC Energy, a company developing alkaline fuel cell technology, for his role chairing its board. His remuneration to date has notched up 2.5 million share options.

Yeo is also chairman of TMO Renewables, "a company developing and supplying technology for second generation biofuels". This earned him £44,583.28 between March 2012 and April 2013.

Yeo did not receive any payment from Eco City Vehicles, a firm which distributes and services London taxis, between October 2011 and October 2012. But he was paid a lump sum of £40,000 on October 2nd last year for 91 hours' work over the year ending September 31st 2012.

On top of all this, his work as a non-executive director on the board of Groupe Europtunnel – which involved attending meetings and "advising senior management on a range of issues" – saw him paid a total of £37,489.78 between May 2012 and April 2013.

I interviewed Yeo last week and was surprised by how unabashed Yeo is about the large amount of cash he receives every year from the renewable energy firms whose cause he advances in parliament. When totted up this comes to a total of £165,473.06. On top of that he will receive £66,396 for his salary as an MP in the 2013/14 financial year and a further £14,728 top-up because of his select committee chair role.

Is it right that an MP in such a position of influence have financial interests so closely associated with his scrutinising work? According to parliament's official rules, the answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. Members of parliament are permitted to earn additional money with second jobs; all they have to do is declare an interest whenever their parliamentary work takes them near the topic.

Take Yeo's contribution to the energy bill debate last week, when he led a rebellion against the government's refusal to include a 2030 decarbonisation target in the legislation. "I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register of members' financial interests, in particular to my interests in the energy industry," Yeo declared. Most MPs simply leave it at that and move on, but Yeo chose to launch into a lengthy defence of his arrangements. He told the chamber: "My views on climate change and on the need for Britain to move more swiftly to a low-carbon economy and to cut its dependence of fossil fuels were formed two decades ago when I had ministerial responsibility for this area of policy."

Or, as he told me in his enormous Westminster office last Wednesday: "I think it's quite hard for anyone to sustain the argument what I'm doing is the result of financial interests when I was actually doing it 12 years before I had those financial interests."

This logic is not just weak. It is also flawed.

It is weak because, on this basis, it is acceptable that a politician should be able to cash in on their stance on any particular issue, using it as a selling point to reinforce their credibility in the section of the business world which will benefit from its association with the MP. It does not matter that the views were originally honestly held. As soon as money becomes a factor, those views become tainted.

Holding consistent views is barely admirable in a politician – they are expected to maintain some degree of consistency, after all. What sliver of respect this warrants is undermined by the possibility their views are being maintained for less than straightforward reasons. Consistency is not always appropriate. It does not offer carte blanche for profiteering.

Yeo's premise that business insight is valuable is deeply flawed. "I'm a much better chairman of the committee because I not only have a political and academic network, but also a range of business connections that would not be available to me if I was not active in the business world," he told Politics.co.uk on Wednesday.

"My judgements… are better-informed because I talk to people in business more than I otherwise would."

Yeo's credibility is diminished, not enhanced, by his business links. As a businessman seeking to advance the interests of the private causes he is paid to nurture, he becomes just another actor in the lobbying game. He lacks the distant perspective of a genuine outsider. Yeo cannot see the wood for the trees.

This is a man who has been hiding in plain sight for years. His activities are deeply unusual for a select committee chair; a couple of other chairs earn over £10,000 from legal work on the side, but these fall far short of his levels of earnings, or the proximity of those earnings to his policy area. He has remained within parliamentary rules – despite the outrageous extent of his activities.

His connection to business interests may be why the Sunday Times' investigative reporters chose to target him as they went undercover. Yeo boasted to undercover journalists that he could introduce those in the private sector to "almost everyone you need to get hold of in this country" because he could get away with it behind closed doors.

In the Commons, his activities are limited because of suspicions about his commercial interests. In private, it's a very different matter. As he put it: "What I say to people in private is another matter altogether."

That is the line which Yeo has now crossed. He has been caught on camera revealing he is prepared to accept money in return for assisting those who he should be scrutinising impartially. It is the most fundamental conflict of interests, and it is one for which he should pay with his job.

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