Former prime ministers tend to avoid engaging in personal criticism of their successors, particularly if they served as leader of the same party. Sir John Major’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s handling of the Owen Paterson affair – “shameful and wrong” and “politically corrupt” – is an extraordinary and devastating intervention that shows how low the prime minister’s reputation has sunk with senior members of his party. Major has even gone so far as to say that he would face a dilemma were he to have to consider voting for Johnson at the next general election.
Johnson’s handling of the standard committee’s findings and recommendations on Paterson has been disgraceful. The Commons committee, comprised not just of cross-party MPs but members of the public, upheld findings by the parliamentary commissioner for standards that Paterson had egregiously breached the rules on several occasions, by lobbying ministers as a paid consultant for two private companies. It was a clear example of an MP using his elected office for financial gain to the benefit of private interests. Had the government not intervened, the Commons would have almost certainly voted to impose a 30-day suspension on Paterson, as recommended by the committee.
Instead, the government interfered in what should have been a free vote to insist Conservative MPs vote to overturn the committee’s recommendations and support an amendment to reform the standards system, reportedly threatening that if they failed to back the government, they would lose funding for their constituencies. When it was clear the reaction this engendered even among the sympathetic press was far worse than the government expected, it U-turned.
This unedifying episode merely confirms what we already knew of Johnson: that he is a man utterly lacking in integrity, with no regard for standards in public life. Johnson has already been investigated by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, more than any other MP in the last three years and has previously faced sanctions for breaching parliamentary rules around registering his financial interests. The Electoral Commission is investigating the redecoration costs of his Downing Street flat based on the fact there are “reasonable grounds” to think many offences may have been committed; once this concludes, Johnson could face his fourth investigation by Stone into the same matter. It was therefore a gross conflict of interest for the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to launch an attack on Stone in the wake of her thorough and impartial investigation into Paterson’s conduct and gives the impression of a government looking to neuter an independent system for monitoring parliamentary standards at the convenience of the prime minister.
Johnson faces other questions over his personal integrity, including over the value of a free luxury holiday he accepted as a gift in recent weeks in Spain. His attitude infects standards right across government. When an investigation found Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying civil servants, it was not she who resigned, but the independent adviser on ministerial standards. The National Audit Office found last year that those with personal ministerial contacts were far more likely to win lucrative, pandemic-related contracts for personal protective equipment.
This is not just about corruption in the processes of government. It goes to the very heart of what this government is about. Johnson was elected on a platform of getting Brexit done, after having led a referendum campaign that made deliberately misleading claims to voters: that leaving the EU would result in an extra £350m a week for the NHS (a claim the UK Statistics Authority later ruled was a clear misuse of official statistics) and a vote to remain in the EU was a vote to share a border with Iraq and Syria. These are the false promises of populism: abjectly disrespecting voters by pretending that there are easy solutions to big challenges facing the country. It takes a certain kind of charlatan, driven chiefly by the desire for power, not the national interest, to embrace this kind of politics as Johnson has done. Since becoming prime minister, he has expelled from his party his colleagues who disagree with him on Brexit, unlawfully shut down parliament to try to force through his Brexit deal against parliamentary opposition, lied about the consequences of the Northern Ireland protocol and has repeatedly threatened to break international agreements to get his way. A disregard for the rules and a lack of probity is not some byproduct of Boris Johnson’s tenure in No 10: it is the defining aspect of his character, his career and his politics.
This means that tightening up the rules can only achieve so much. The UK has a more lax approach to lobbying than many other parliamentary democracies; there is no question that tougher rules should be introduced, including a comprehensive register of all political lobbying and an agency to regulate the revolving door between ministerial and government office and lucrative private sector contracts. Parliamentarians should consider introducing a cap on their additional earnings and an advance approval system for any additional income they earn. But the problem goes much wider: a culture of impunity within this government and the erosion of an unwritten honour code, which new rules cannot by themselves wholly fix.
The damage goes beyond the ratings of a particular party or leader. Just as the expenses scandal did 12 years ago, the sleazy cronyism of this government will further erode public trust in our democratic institutions and the overall legitimacy of our political system. Boris Johnson serves at the pleasure of Conservative MPs: they have the power vested in them to topple him. They should be examining their consciences as to whether his rotten and corrupt leadership is really the best their party can offer Britain.