Labour leader Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of “running scared” after the prime minister dodged a three-hour Commons debate on sleaze.
Instead of attending the emergency debate on Monday afternoon, Johnson fulfiled what Downing Street said was a “long-standing engagement” at Hexham General Hospital in Northumberland. During his visit, the PM declined to answer reporters’ questions about recent “cash for House of Lords seats” allegations.
He has also refused to apologise over the row that erupted last week after the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards recommended that Tory MP Owen Paterson be suspended. Johnson has fallen foul of the committee more than once before too, both prior to and after entering Downing Street.
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Here are the most significant allegations that Johnson and his government have faced.
8 March 2020: the Mustique trip
Little more than nine months after Johnson became PM, The Observer revealed that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had launched an investigation into a ten-day holiday that he and his partner Carrie Johnson (then Symonds) had taken on the Caribbean island of Mustique between Boxing Day 2019 and 5 January 2020. The Tory leader had said that the £15,000 post-election break was funded by party donor David Ross. But Johnson’s declaration in the register of MPs’ interests “was later contradicted by Ross”, said the paper, which noted that it was “the first time a serving prime minister has been investigated by the commissioner”.
Johnson had clashed horns with the commissioner and the standards committee on at least two prior occasions. In 2018, as an MP, he was ordered by the watchdog to apologise over the late declaration of £52,000 in book royalty payments. And just three months before becoming PM the following summer, Johnson was criticised for taking nearly a year to register his 20% stake in a Somerset property worth more than £100,000. The committee said that Johnson’s disregard for the 28-day time limit set for MPs to register such financial interests reinforced “their previous view that he had displayed an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House”.
28 April 2021: ‘cash for curtains’ scandal
The Electoral Commission announced earlier this year that an investigation was being launched into the refurbishment of the flat above No. 11 Downing Street, where the Johnsons live. Leaked emails obtained by the Daily Mail suggested that the Conservatives “used nearly £60,000 of party funds” on the “lavish makeover” and had earmarked specific donations. The decor was said to have included “hand-crafted” £840-a-roll gold wallpaper designed by interior decorator Lulu Lytle.
Johnson’s own adviser on standards, Christopher Geidt, concluded that while the ministerial code had not been broken, the PM had “unwisely” allowed the refurbishment “to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”. The Institute of Government said the episode “highlighted concerns both about the way the money was managed, and about the failure of the prime minister, and possibly the Conservative Party, to make full declarations and answer questions”.
No. 10 denied any wrongdoing, in what has since been dubbed the “cash for curtains” scandal.
8 July 2021: Mustique row verdict
Johnson was cleared by the committee examining his Mustique trip. Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone found that the PM was right to name Ross on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because the Tory donor had “facilitated the visit” by arranging Johnson’s accommodation through a local holiday company.
The regulator’s report noted that this involvement only came to light as a result of their own enquiries. Given that Johnson had been “twice reprimanded by the previous standards committee in the last parliament in the space of four months”, said the report, the PM might have been expected “to go the extra mile” to ensure there was no uncertainty about his holiday arrangements.
3 November 2021: Paterson furore
The PM backed a bid last week to overturn the six-week suspension of Tory MP Paterson, a former environment secretary under David Cameron, for breaking lobbying rules. Johnson ordered his party to vote for an amendment that would halt the suspension recommended by the standards committee and instead create a new watchdog group with a built-in Tory majority.
An analysis by Business Insider found that of the 248 Conservative MPs who followed their leader’s instructions, 22 had been investigated by the existing watchdog since the 2019 election. And 19 “had claims against them upheld by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards”, the news site reported.
After the government won the amendment with an 18-vote majority, Starmer said that it was “no surprise” to see the Conservative Party “yet again wallowing in sleaze”.
“The rot starts at the top,” the Labour leader added.
4 November 2021: rapid U-turn
Less than 24 hours after the vote, Johnson changed his mind. Amid outrage both from within the Tory party and beyond, the government announced that separate new votes would be held on improving the standards system and the outcome for Paterson. Hours later, Paterson announced his resignation from his role as North Shropshire MP and “the cruel world of politics”.
In a separate development, The Telegraph revealed that Conservative chiefs had been handed the initial findings of the “cash for curtains” investigation, to give the party an opportunity to respond ahead of the commission’s final ruling.
7 November 2021: Lords seats allegations
The government has become embroiled in a new sleaze row after The Sunday Times reported that House of Lords seats were being offered to Conservative donors who contribute more than £3m to the party.
According to a investigation by the paper and independent political website openDemocracy, multimillionaire donors “appear to be guaranteed a peerage if they take on the temporary role as the party treasurer and increase their own donations beyond £3m”.
The peerage of one such donor – billionaire businessman Peter Cruddas – was reportedly pushed through by Johnson against the recommendation of the Lords Appointments Commission.
The PM’s decision to “override what we did... left a bad taste in my mouth”, an unnamed commission member told the joint investigation.
Responding to the claims, a Conservative spokesperson said: “We do not believe that successful businesspeople and philanthropists who contribute to political causes and parties should be disqualified from sitting in the legislature.”
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