Analysis: Boris Johnson’s government in fresh swirl of murk and sleaze accusations
Owen Paterson, an influential Conservative backbencher and former cabinet minister, was facing a 30-day suspension after being accused of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.
Paterson sent multiple emails to government officials on behalf of two companies that between them paid him a salary of £100,000 ($136,000) as a consultant. Paterson claims he was raising concerns about the quality of milk and pork; Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, disagrees.
On Wednesday, Paterson persuaded Johnson’s government to back an amendment that would overrule his suspension and instead refer the case to a newly set-up parliamentary committee of MPs chaired by one of his Conservative colleagues, John Whittingdale.
The backlash was so severe the government appeared to make a U-turn on Thursday morning, indicating the proposals to overrule the suspension on Paterson would not go ahead.
A Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement: “There must be tough and robust checks against lobbying for profit. There must be a proper process to scrutinise and — if necessary — discipline those who do not follow the rules.”
“I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.”
Downing Street has yet to respond to Starmer’s criticism.
Prime ministers are given £30,000 ($41,000) of public money a year to renovate their official residence during their term, but Johnson’s reportedly cost £200,000 ($280,000). He has been accused of trying to get Conservative donors to pay for the work, plans that his former adviser Dominic Cummings called “unethical, foolish, (and) possibly illegal.” Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.
Johnson also stands accused of trying to get a Conservative-friendly, right-wing former newspaper editor, Paul Dacre, the top job at Britain’s media regulator, Ofcom.
The government has appointed a lobbyist with very close links to the Conservative Party as the senior external interviewer for the job, which has been seen as an attempt to smooth the way for Dacre.
Frustratingly for the opposition Labour Party, these scandals don’t necessarily translate to public condemnation of the government. While Starmer is right in his claim that, for some, Johnson’s name is synonymous with sleaze, other voters have baked a certain amount of scandal into this prime minister.
However, while this isn’t hurting Johnson right now, sleaze, Ford notes, does have a habit of building up over time.
“It could affect him though. Sleaze is more like a corrosive fog than an immediate problem. It could build up. A lot of the voters he won over by backing Brexit were inherently distrustful of politicians in the first place, so there could come a time where it suddenly hurts him badly.”