Boris Johnson Faces Backlash Over Bid to Rip Up U.K. Rules on Sleaze
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson pushed through an overhaul of the U.K. Parliament’s sleaze rules, after an independent watchdog found a member of his Conservative Party guilty of lobbying on behalf of two companies.
The House of Commons voted narrowly in favor of a plan put forward by allies of former Tory minister Owen Patterson -- but also supported by Johnson’s government -- to set up a new committee to examine the ruling against him, and determine whether MPs should be given new rights in such cases.
Opposition politicians yelled “shame” at the government benches as the result was read out. Both Labour and the Scottish National Party had warned of a return to 1990s “Tory sleaze,” British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals, if the plan won parliamentary backing.
Paterson had faced a 30-day suspension for his alleged breach of lobbying rules, which could have meant him facing a by-election. The recommendation followed an investigation by Parliament’s standards commissioner Kathryn Stone, who found he approached ministers and officials on behalf of two firms he worked for as a paid consultant, Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
Paterson denies wrongdoing and said the probe was flawed because it allowed him no right to appeal or call witnesses in his defence.
But while Johnson’s government won the vote on Wednesday, the slim margin of 18 votes -- the Tories have a House of Commons majority of about 80 -- shows not all Tories are happy with the prime minister’s stance. A total of 13 voted directly against the move, while many more abstained.
His decision to intervene is especially controversial because Johnson himself has history with Stone, who said he broke the rules over a luxury holiday to Mustique. The standards committee, made up of MPs and lay members, later overruled that finding.
The vote has also reignited allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, just as the prime minister tries to get his government back on track after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Johnson has been embroiled in a series of sleaze allegations, including a row over who paid for the refit of his Downing Street apartment, while his government was accused of cronyism over the lobbying of ministers by the now insolvent lender Greensill Capital.
Parliament’s standards committee was set up in 1994 after the so-called cash for question scandal, when several Tory MPs were found to have put questions to Parliament in exchange for money.
Investigations into alleged breaches of parliamentary rules are carried out by an independent commissioner, currently Stone, who submits findings to the standards committee, a cross-party panel of MPs and lay members. The committee then decides whether to back the findings and what sanction should be imposed, and this is then voted on in the Commons.
Speaking ahead of the vote, Labour MP and chair of the standards committee Chris Bryant told Parliament that failing to back the sanction against Paterson “would be dismantling the rule on paid advocacy which has been around in some shape or form since 1695.”
“I’m afraid the public would think that we would be the Parliament that licensed cash for questions,” he told MPs.
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