Boris Johnson’s U-Turn on Disgraced MP Makes Tories Harder to Control
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson has long defied U.K. political gravity, relying on charisma to ride out a series of gaffes and missteps. But the British prime minister’s latest own goal threatens to damage his standing in the governing Conservative party and make it harder for him to govern.
Even by Johnson’s standards, the U-turn over a senior Tory found guilty of breaking lobbying rules has been turbulent.
On Wednesday, he told Conservative MPs to vote to rip up Parliament rules on standards rather than accept the 30-day suspension of Owen Paterson, a former minister, over his paid advocacy on behalf of two companies.
By forcing his colleagues to back a plan they knew was unpopular, Johnson cost them -- and himself -- considerable political capital.
So his sudden reversal on Thursday, following a barrage of criticism including from Tory-leaning newspapers, has made matters even worse. Furious Conservative MPs now say they will be even less willing to toe the line in future.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News on Friday it had been wrong to conflate “creating a fairer system” with the “particular case of Owen Paterson.” He said: “Upon reflection I do think it’s a mistake”, adding: “I take collective responsibility.”
Though only 13 Tory MPs voted directly against Johnson’s plan, many more abstained and there were growing signs of disarray in the aftermath.
Ministers said they had privately expressed their unhappiness before the vote, while the sudden climbdown meant a parliamentary aide to senior minister Michael Gove, who had been fired for defying Johnson’s voting instructions, was quickly reinstated.
A YouGov poll for The Times conducted on Wednesday evening found that the Conservative Party’s lead over Labour has fallen to one points from six.
One Conservative MP who was elected in 2019 and spoke on condition of anonymity, complained Johnson was trashing the reputation of the party for the sake of an old friend. Another, elected in the same year, said the episode has exposed the division between younger and older Conservative MPs -- both agreed their support for Johnson had slipped.
A third said that they couldn’t believe the political costs they’d been forced to incur purely to bailout out Paterson.
Getting involved in Paterson’s case was always a risky decision for Johnson. It reignited allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals, just as the prime minister tries to get his government back on track after the pandemic.
Now Johnson faces a number of by-elections across England that will test his premiership in the coming weeks: one in Paterson’s seat of North Shropshire, on England’s border with northern Wales, and another in Old Bexley and Sidcup, east London, following the death of Conservative MP James Brokenshire. Labour will put up candidates in both these contests.
There will also be a by-election in Southend West, southeast England, after the killing of Conservative MP David Amess, but opposition parties will stand aside here. There could also be one in Leicester East, in the Midlands, if independent MP Claudia Webbe bows to pressure and resigns after being convicted of harassment.
It has also drawn attention to Johnson’s own history with Parliament’s standards authorities, on issues ranging from who paid for a luxury holiday to the late declaration of payments for his non-MP work.
Another Conservative MP said Johnson’s reputation for both sleaze and U-turns is making the party increasingly ungovernable, pointing out that controversial votes in future will be much harder for the government to win.
The Paterson case is only the latest in a series of policy reversals. Conservative MPs have been asked to vote to allow sewage into the sea, defend a cut to free school meals -- twice -- and back a flawed school exam algorithm in 2020, before the government backtracked on all.
In June then Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned from the cabinet for breaching social distancing rules, just a day after Johnson declared the matter “closed.”
For opposition politicians, who yelled “shame” at the government benches as Wednesday’s vote result was read out, it’s an open door to put allegations of corruption and sleaze back in the spotlight.
In the end, Johnson’s maneuvers came to nothing, especially as Paterson resigned as an MP on Thursday while still protesting his innocence. In a statement, Johnson paid tribute to their decades-long friendship, saying Paterson “was an early and powerful champion of Brexit.”
As his officials try to quickly move on, the risk for Johnson is if angry Tories, subject to abuse on email, social media and even an attack on one MP’s local office, prove to have long memories.
|How ‘sleaze’ has embroiled Johnson’s government|
|2021||Johnson faced allegations over the funding of his apartment refit a year earlier, which initially relied on a loan from a Tory donor. He was cleared of wrongdoing but told he acted ‘unwisely’|
|2021||Businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri says she and Johnson had an affair while he was Mayor of London and received public grants for her technology firm. Johnson has denied any wrongdoing|
|2020||It emerged that about 50% of the 18 billion pounds ($24 billion) spent on pandemic contracts was awarded without competitive tender, with firms recommended by MPs, peers and ministers given priority|
|2020||Johnson stood by ex-aide Dominic Cummings, who broke Covid restrictions, over his claim he went for a drive to test his eyesight. It drew widespread mockery and cost Johnson political capital|
|2020||Then Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick came under fire over his contacts with a property tycoon who wanted planning permission for a housing development and later donated to the Tory party|
|2019||Johnson faced a media furor over the funding of his 15,000-pound holiday on the Caribbean island of Mustique in 2019 by Carphone Warehouse executive David Ross|
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