Boris Johnson’s contempt for integrity is at the rotten heart of the Paterson affair |
Boris Johnson is a law unto himself. His housemaster at Eton noted his belief that he should be treated as “an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”. He rarely encounters a rule without feeling the urge to break it. Know this and you are well on the way to understanding why the government engaged in grubby scheming to undermine parliament’s anti-corruption safeguards, then brutish bullying of Tory MPs to make them follow the prime minister’s orders, before the intensity of the backlash forced an abject retreat over the Owen Paterson affair.
For what cause did Mr Johnson bring so much opprobrium, humiliation and recrimination on his government’s head? The independent commissioner for parliamentary standards found Mr Paterson guilty of serial and egregious breaches of the rules when he lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of two companies together paying him more than a £100,000 a year. The all-party standards committee agreed that he had brought parliament into disrepute. Three of its four Conservative MPs endorsed that verdict. The fourth recused himself because he was a close friend of the accused. The committee recommended a 30-day suspension from the Commons, a sanction that many looking on from outside will consider lenient. In the normal world, bringing your employer into disrepute is customarily a sackable offence. The suicide of his wife engendered sympathy among MPs and perhaps his constituents too. Had he expressed contrition and accepted his punishment, rather than defiantly insisting that he was innocent and would do it all again, many of his colleagues think Mr Paterson would have stood a good chance of carrying on as an MP.
This could have been a very small footnote in the life of this parliament. It was choices made in Downing Street that turned a lobbying affair involving one former cabinet minister into an utterly disreputable episode for the entire government. “The chief whip is not to blame,” says a Tory MP who has held the position himself. “The decisions on these things are always made in Number 10.”
First came the preposterously outrageous scheme, fronted by Andrea Leadsom and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the most lethal comedy duo since Arsenic and Old Lace, to secure a reprieve for the prime minister’s friend. This sought to retrospectively rewrite the rules under which Mr Paterson was convicted by setting up a sham committee chaired by a Conservative MP for whom the prime minister’s wife once worked. Many Tories understood how appalling this looked and were queasy about supporting such a shabby trick. So next came highly aggressive whipping, which is alleged to have included threats to cut funding to the constituencies of any Tory MP who refused to fall in with the plot. That’s not parliamentary government – that’s government as an extortion racket. Mark Harper was once the Tory chief whip. Privy as they are to parliament’s darkest secrets and dirtiest deeds, former chief whips are hard to shock. So you know really ugly stuff went on when Mr Harper describes it as “one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament. My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this.” Note “from the very top”.
It was predictable to anyone living outside the Boris Johnson bubble that fiddling with the rules in this nakedly partisan fashion would trigger a tsunami of condemnation. Lord Evans of Weardale, the former head of MI5 who chairs the committee on standards in public life, rightly called it “a very serious and very damaging” attack on “the best traditions of British democracy”. Tory MPs became highly agitated by the public outrage flying into their inboxes. The opposition parties united to denounce the government, as did newspapers of every political complexion. Someone extremely close to events says: “I think it was when he saw the headlines on Wednesday night that Boris decided he had to order the retreat.”
Conservative MPs seethe with fury. “The whole thing is a total fuck-up of the first order,” says one senior Tory who voted with the government and now feels “like a complete twit”. He’s got lots of company. All those Tories who went along with the attempt to subvert the standards regime have been left looking stupid for making themselves complicit with the squalid scheme, only to see the government retreat less than 24 hours later. They are going to remember that next time they are ordered to support something they don’t like. Some Conservative MPs saw how dreadful this was from the start and appreciated how vulnerable it made them to the charge of corruption levelled by the opposition. The 51 who did the right thing may feel vindicated, but that is the only reward they are likely to get. When a party gets a reputation for being sleazy, voters don’t tend to discriminate between the saints and the sinners. The taint clings to all. So the rebels also have reason to be furious with their government.
Then there are the friends of, and apologists for, Mr Paterson, largely older Brexiters like himself, who are bitter that he was abandoned to his fate and has now quit as an MP. “Support for Boris from that lot has evaporated pretty much,” remarks one senior Tory.
Another source of anger among Conservative MPs is that this affair will sharpen questions about why they are permitted to moonlight for commercial interests at all when the public might reasonably expect them to be fully devoted to the interests of their constituents. The multi-jobbers are cross because they fear that the government’s grotesque handling of the affair makes it more likely that one day there will be an outright ban on MPs trousering nice big earners from outside interests.
“Boris now has enemies on two sides of the parliamentary party,” says one Tory. “He’s made enemies of people who have been terrified by their postbags. He’s made enemies of people who think he has abandoned an essentially decent man. This could be the start of a serious fracture in the foundations of Boris’s support.”
People close to Mr Johnson confirm that he ditched the attempt to meddle with the anti-corruption rules because he was taken aback by the scale of the opposition. That is very telling. He failed to appreciate why others would attach importance to standards in public life because he cares so little about them himself. His personal history is punctuated with instances of bending, flouting or ignoring rules whenever they get in the way of his appetites, ambitions or interests.
Dominic Cummings has popped up to allege that the plot to discredit the policing of standards was “really about the PM and his own lies” over the lavish refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. The commissioner, Kathryn Stone, has conducted three investigations in the past three years into Mr Johnson, twice finding him in breach of the rules on declarations of benefits. The makeover of the Number 10 pad is widely expected to be the subject of another inquiry, once the Electoral Commission has completed its separate delve into that murky business. I hear that it handed the findings of its preliminary inquiry to the Conservative party last Monday, just before the government launched its attempt to nobble the standards regime.
This contemptible episode is not a one-off, but the latest exhibition of the pathology of the Johnson government. There’s a pattern of trying to bend the guardrails designed to keep our democracy clean and undermine independent scrutiny of the government’s conduct. The examples are piling up. When an ethics invigilator finds Priti Patel guilty of bullying civil servants, ignore the report. When the Electoral Commission has discomfited you and your chums, plan to compromise its independence by placing it under the heel of a Conservative-dominated committee. When courts repeatedly rule that the government has acted unlawfully, seek to weaken judicial review of ministerial decisions. This is a government that chafes against restraints on the abuse of its power led by a man who has never grown out of his schoolboy habit of behaving as if the rules should never apply to him.
In comparison with many other democracies, and in the absence of a written constitution, Britain lacks all that many checks and balances to curb bad behaviour by the ruling party. The forced retreat over the Paterson affair is not only a very deserved humiliation, it is also a very necessary defeat.