Is the ‘sleaze crisis’ a turning point for Boris Johnson?

Conservative lead over Labour falls following dramatic U-turn over MPs standards watchdog

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Oli Scarff /AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is facing the fury of the Conservative backbenches after performing a humiliating U-turn over plans to overhaul parliament’s standards watchdog.

Owen Paterson resigned as MP for North Shropshire after the prime minister backtracked on plans to set up a Conservative-majority body to oversee parliamentary standards.

The move would have saved Paterson from suspension after the independent Commons Select Committee on Standards found he had “egregiously” broken lobbying rules, but was scrapped in what one cabinet minister told The Times was an “absolute disaster” for Johnson.

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‘Unedifying episode’

Tory MPs have reacted with “fury” at the prime minister’s U-turn, The Guardian said, which came just one day after MPs were whipped to support the amendment that would have torn up existing anti-sleaze rules.

Most backbenchers had “reluctantly” supported the “extraordinary” bid to rewrite the rules and have Paterson’s case re-examined, the paper added, with some labelling it an “own goal” and a “masterclass in how to turn a minor local crisis into a disaster”.

Johnson changed course amid a public backlash and a warning from Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, that the plan was “a very serious and damaging moment for parliament and public standards in this country”.

Tory MP Mark Harper, a former chief whip who voted against the amendment, tweeted that it was one of the “most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as an MP”, adding that his Conservative colleagues “should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this”.

One “veteran MP” who backed the amendment told The Times that Johnson had “misjudged the situation at every turn”, adding: “You don’t propose these kinds of changes to the rules of the House without consulting with the opposition in advance.

“Then you don’t go ahead with such a vote without testing out the waters with your own MPs. And then if you do go through with it the last thing you do is U-turn,” they continued. “It has been a monumental screw-up in every way.”

Johnson dropped the plans after the opposition parties said they would not put forward MPs to sit on the new committee. Labour MP Chris Bryant, chair of the existing Committee on Standards, said the move would mean the government would have ended up “marking its own homework”.

Conservative MPs are now “questioning the PM’s judgment”, said the Daily Mail, with one senior minister telling the paper that the situation “was completely avoidable”.

“The problem with Boris is he packs his Cabinet with second-rate people, meaning there is no one to tell him he should take a different course,” they added. “It all just looks like we’re back to the 1990s – MPs getting together to support their friends.”

Mutiny in the ranks

Johnson is not alone in taking the flak for the U-turn, with Tory MPs also “apoplectic” at Chief Whip Mark Spencer, according to the Financial Times (FT).

Spencer is facing criticism for taking the “unusual” step of ordering Tory MPs to support the prime minister’s plans, “effectively turning the issue of MPs’ standards from a cross-party Commons matter into government policy”, the paper added.

One backbencher told the paper that some of the more reluctant MPs were told “they would lose funding for their constituency” if they failed to toe the line.

Another Conservative MP told Guido Fawkes, a right-wing political blog, that Johnson had “blown up” Spencer’s authority by demanding that MPs be whipped to vote with the government.

The “cherry on top of the cake”, Guido said, was the sacking of Angela Richardson, a parliamentary aide to Michael Gove, who was fired for rebelling, only to be reinstated the following day after Paterson’s resignation.

The view now “swirling around a chunk of the party”, the site added, is that “if enough Tory MPs break the supposedly strict whip they’ll be able to force a policy u-turn and keep their job”.

Spencer’s “unforgivable error”, Politico said, was “putting the interests of one unrepentant rule-breaking MP over the prime minister and the wider Conservative Party”.

One insider told the site that Spencer, a close ally of the prime minister, “failed in his duties on two counts”: first, failing to realise that the “plan was unviable”; and second, being blindsided by “the scale of the Tory rebellion”.

Turning point?

Allegations of sleaze appear to have cut through with the public. A YouGov poll for The Times carried out following Paterson’s resignation revealed that the Conservative lead over Labour has dropped from six points to one.

The last 24 hours have certainly “humbled” Johnson, said political commentator Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail, with even Tory MPs willing to back the government on its amendment quickly realising the affair was turning into a “public relations disaster”.

If the prime minster was not so determined to “wreak revenge” on Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards who has investigated him numerous times, then perhaps he would not have become “blind and deaf to the evidence against Paterson”, he suggested.

The government has “made a habit recently of misreading how events in parliament will play in the country”, said James Forsyth in The Times. He added that frequent U-turns are “no way to govern” and “egregious” errors can do “lasting damage even after it is quickly reversed”.

However, the lessons that need to be learnt from this “sorry saga” go further than parliamentary management, he continuned. Forsyth explained that Johnson’s 80-strong majority in parliament gives him “huge powers” that are only compounded by the current “paucity of the opposition”.

“Downing Street must realise that just because its majority means it can do something, that doesn’t mean it should,” he said.

Johnson’s political strength is the “kind of power that turns a brain fart into law within 24 hours”, agreed Fraser Nelson in The Telegraph.

And with “pitifully little scrutiny or questioning” from his opposition, the prime minister has “no one to point out” that, like the expenses scandal, the standards amendment wasn’t “about the technicalities but a wider principle” – one of “trust in politics”.

So will the fall-out from the last 24 hours have electoral consequences?

“It’s a question with a short answer,” said political editor Stephen Bush in The New Statesman. “Who cares?”

Ultimately, “the reason why the governing party marking its own homework is bad is that corrupt processes tend to lead to poor outcomes”, he continued.

“Protecting ministers who break the ministerial code eventually leads to poor quality ministers making bad decisions that cause real harm to large numbers of people,” he added.

“Whether or not it moves votes is, ultimately, a side issue.”

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.