Boris Johnson faced a barrage of criticism in parliament on Monday after his failed attempt last week to block the suspension of an MP found guilty of misconduct and overturn the internal policing system that incriminated him.
But the prime minister was absent from the House of Commons as it held an emergency debate on political ethics. His office cited a scheduled visit to a hospital 400 kilometres away in northern England, prompting accusations of cowardice.
"The prime minister is running scared," said Keir Starmer, Labour Party leader. Opposition parties say the episode has revealed a Conservative government that plays fast and loose with the rules, and they want a public inquiry into corruption allegations.
"The actions of the government last week have tarnished this House’s reputation," said Liberal Democrat lawmaker Wendy Chamberlain, who kicked off the debate.
“This is almost the kind of behaviour we would expect to see in the Duma in Moscow, the National People’s Congress in Beijing — not in the House of Commons."
In Johnson's absence, Cabinet Minister Stephen Barclay said the government was "listening carefully to the legitimate concerns” raised by legislators.
The prime minister insisted his government took setting ethics standards for members of Parliament seriously. "I think it is very important that we get this right," he said on his hospital visit. "We are going to make every effort to get it right. We are going to hold MPs to account. MPs should not break the rules."
The saga began when the House of Commons standards committee recommended a 30-day suspension for Owen Paterson — a former minister and like Johnson, a prominent Brexiteer — for breaching parliamentary rules by lobbying on behalf of two companies that were paying him more than £100,000 (€118,000) a year.
The Commons Standards Committee said Paterson’s actions were an “egregious case of paid advocacy” and had “brought the House into disrepute".
Instead of backing the committee’s decision, as has happened in all similar cases for decades, Conservative lawmakers were ordered by the government to oppose it and instead to call for an overhaul of the whole standards process.
That vote last Wednesday sparked fury — and not just from the opposition. Generally supportive newspapers reflected the anger, with the Daily Mail proclaiming: “Shameless MPs Slink Back Into Sleaze”.
“Sleaze” — corrupt or unethical behaviour, often for financial gain — is an especially emotive word in British politics, especially for Conservatives.
The media and political backlash over the Paterson case triggered a rapid U-turn from the government, which said it would look for cross-party consensus on overhauling the disciplinary process. Paterson abruptly quit Parliament after 24 years as a lawmaker.
The Paterson scandal has sparked calls from transparency groups for a review of rules on lawmakers holding second jobs. Members of Parliament are allowed to earn outside income on top of their £82,000 (€96,000) annual salaries, as long as they declare it and it does not shade into lobbying.
Environment Minister George Eustice said the uproar was a “storm in a teacup” of little interest to the wider public.
But former Conservative Prime Minister John Major lashed out at Johnson, saying the way the Conservative government had acted was “shameful, wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government.”
"There’s a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour," Major told the BBC. “It has to stop, it has to stop soon.”
The lobbying episode is the latest fuel for allegations that Johnson and his Conservative government don’t follow rules that apply to everyone else.
Lawsuits have been launched over the government’s awarding of tens of millions of pounds in contracts to provide equipment and services during the coronavirus pandemic — often in haste and with little oversight.
Home Secretary Priti Patel was allowed to keep her job after she was found to have bullied members of staff. Johnson himself has been criticised for accepting expensive holidays in Mustique and Spain, and faces investigation by Parliament’s standards watchdog over the source of money that was used to refurbish his apartment in Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence.
Allegations of “Tory sleaze” have been levelled at Conservative governments for decades, and have sometimes led to resignations. Johnson's government has been accused by critics of undermining the ethical norms that have long governed British political behaviour.