Johnson Faces U.K. Parliament Grilling Over Lobbying Furor
(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is battling a mounting backlash over his attempt to protect a Conservative lawmaker found to have broken lobbying rules, with Parliament set to hold an emergency debate on Monday.
Johnson was forced to perform a U-turn following widespread condemnation -- including from fellow Tories -- of his decision to try to tear up Parliament rules rather than accept the suspension of Owen Paterson, who was found guilty of paid advocacy on behalf of two companies.
The maneuver was attacked by Tory-leaning newspapers, and John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, accused the Johnson government of being “politically corrupt.” The opposition Labour Party is expected to repeat its call for Johnson to apologize when lawmakers in the House of Commons debate the Paterson case and standards later today.
Johnson himself is unlikely to attend the debate in person, Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan told Sky News on Monday.
“He will, no doubt, as we all do, have the House of Commons on in his office as he is dealing with many, many other issues that only a prime minister can deal with,” Trevelyan said. Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle will make a statement on how to tackle the issue, she added.
The episode has reignited allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals. More than a dozen Tory members of Parliament defied Johnson and voted against the government last Wednesday, and many more abstained. Paterson, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned after Johnson was forced to back down.
“I want MPs to be able to do their job properly,” Chris Bryant, the opposition Labour chairman of Parliament’s Committee on Standards. “I have some Conservative friends I disagree with about almost everything but they’re trying to change the world for the better. If there is corruption in the British political system you can’t do that.”
The risk for Johnson is that the scandal hurts Tory support among working-class voters in northern districts, whose switch away from Labour in 2019 helped Johnson win a powerful parliamentary majority.
Johnson’s approval rating slumped to a record low in the wake of the botched attempt to spare the former government minister, according to an Opinium poll for the Observer newspaper, while the Conservatives’ lead over Labour fell to just a single percentage point.
The Liberal Democrats, who secured the emergency debate, have called for an independent statutory public inquiry into sleaze and corruption allegations.
Speaking to broadcasters on Sunday, Environment Secretary George Eustice dismissed the furor as a “storm in a tea cup.” He said the aim of the vote was to create a proper appeals system for lawmakers accused of wrongdoing, but admitted that trying to link reform to the Paterson case had been a mistake.
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