Boris Johnson Isn’t Infallible When It Comes to Sleaze
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Boris Johnson likes to quote Latin picked up from his study of the classics. He should know the tale of the Roman general who, upon entering his city in triumph, was reminded, “hominem te memento” — you are a mere mortal.
But after a crushing election victory over the Labour party in 2019 and a ruthless elimination of his internal party rivals, there is no one in Johnson’s inner circle, it seems, prepared to remind him of his fallibility. That’s only going to hurt the prime minister in the long run.
At the beginning of the week, Johnson had the world’s attention as host of COP26 in Glasgow. Then he decided to throw his weight behind Owen Paterson, a senior Conservative MP found guilty of breaking lobbying rules and suspended by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone.
The prime minister evidently thought the government’s 80-strong majority and commanding lead in the opinion polls would allow him to set aside that verdict with impunity. He kicked a hornet’s nest.
On Wednesday, Tory lawmakers, under strict instructions from the party whips, voted to block Paterson’s suspension from the House of Commons and create a new parliamentary committee to hear his case. A cabinet minister subsequently urged Stone to resign. Paterson boasted in an interview that he “wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again tomorrow.”
Stone’s recommendation to discipline the lawmaker was no partisan judgment. It had been backed by the Commons’ standards committee, composed of Conservative and Labour MPs as well as independent lay figures. “In an egregious case of public advocacy,” it stated, Paterson had lobbied regulators on behalf of two food and diagnostic firms from whom he receives more than 100,000 pounds ($134,870) a year.
Paterson is a long-standing Brexiteer with a strong sense of his own rectitude and many powerful friends on the Tory right. And as pressures of the investigation into his conduct mounted, his wife’s suicide in 2020 gained him the sympathy of those who don’t share his politics.
In his defense, he claimed he was performing a public service by alerting the Food Standards Agency to an alleged dangerous defect in a ham produced by a rival to the company that paid him 500 pounds an hour for advocacy. The rules do make an exception for MPs who “correct a serious wrong.”
But his arguments didn’t even convince his own side — 51 Tory MPs either voted against or abstained on the vote. Many more voted with the government to block Paterson’s suspension, not out of conviction but fearful for their careers. Had Labour organized its MPs in time, the vote might even have been lost.
Johnson should have left the matter alone, or at least pursued other courses. One of the government’s proxies could have moved to reduce Paterson’s suspension on compassionate grounds. There would have been complaints from the opposition and some grumbling in the press, but no great ruckus. Ministers could have also promised to review the appeals procedure for future cases in consultation with Labour.
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, and Mark Spencer, the government’s chief whip, conflated complaints about the system with the case of one individual already found guilty. They decided on a plan to overturn the rules to help a chum, “moving the goalposts,” as one Tory rebel, MP for Hazel Grove William Wragg, put it.
But catastrophic headlines in the following day’s papers produced a volte-face. Within hours, the government caved, and a clearly distressed Paterson resigned his seat in the House of Commons, saying his motives had been impugned.
More importantly, a narrative of “Tory sleaze” has been resurrected, just like the bad old days of the 1990s when newspapers were full of stories about Conservative MPs pocketing brown envelopes of cash.
The scandals just keep coming. First, Johnson’s former chief adviser was allowed to keep his job after breaking Covid restrictions on social distancing that he’d helped draw up. Then the housing minister gave a lucrative contract to a Tory donor after they sat down to dinner. The Home Secretary was found guilty of bullying her civil servants but let off. One starts to wonder, are the rules only for the little people?
Cynics argue that the Paterson affair is a storm in a tea-cup — that voters don’t think public standards are a first order issue like a failing economy or a cost-of-living crisis are.
That’s a half-truth at best. The Tory lead in the polls after the vote on Wednesday was instantly cut by five points to just one ahead of Labour. Voters dislike being taken for fools. People were outraged a decade ago when MPs on all sides were accused of abusing their expenses. Back then, Johnson was one of the few Conservatives to grasp the damage done to the reputation of the political class. Not now.
True, the Tories were last thrown out of government because the country lost confidence in their economic competence. But persistent accusations of financial and sexual peccadilloes meant they governed under a dark cloud. The word “sleaze'' became a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with Conservatives.
Next year, the U.K. can expect rises in taxes and inflation. Supply chain bottlenecks may still be throttling the economy. With a renewed reputation for sleaze and incompetence hanging over his head, Johnson’s job just got a lot harder.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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