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Boris Johnson’s govt is mired in corruption scandals, but do Britons care?

Boris Johnson’s government denied fresh accusations of corruption on Sunday morning in the second scandal to hit the Conservative party in less than a week. But how much is too much for the British public?

Voters in Britain awoke to fresh accusations of corruption against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government Sunday morning as a newspaper investigation found donors to the Conservative Party had been offered seats in the House of Lords.

The Sunday Times reported that 15 out of a total of 16 Conservative treasurers over the last two decades had donated more than £3 million to the party and then been offered a seat in parliament’s upper chamber.

In response the government denied corruption claims for the second time in less than a week following what has been dubbed a “sleaze scandal” involving former Conservative MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson.

Last week government watchdog the Parliamentary Commission for Standards found Paterson had repeatedly lobbied government and officials on behalf of two companies whom he was working for as a consultant for a fee of £100,000 a year.

While paid consultancy is allowed under government rules, the report found that Paterson’s actions on behalf of the two companies in parliament amounted to “paid advocacy”, with one of the companies, Randox, winning a Covid testing contract from the government worth £133 million.

The official report recommended Paterson be suspended from parliament for 30 days as a penalty, but in a highly unusual move, his fellow MPs in the Conservative Party refused the measure.

Instead they organised a vote to overthrow the process for regulating parliamentary standards altogether, which a majority of MPs voted in favour of. The vote also vetoed Paterson’s suspension in advance of a new procedure being put in place, for which the MP told the BBC he was “grateful to the prime minister”.

The vote in parliament caused an outcry in political and media circles, with popular tabloid The Daily Mail publishing a headline saying MPs had “sunk back into sleaze”, and leader of the opposition party Keir Starmer publicly accusing the Conservatives of corruption in an article in The Guardian.

Then in a surprise U-turn one day later, the decision was reversed and Paterson was forced to resign. This might have been due to another form of external pressure changing minds among politicians, Professor Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, told FRANCE 24.

“MPs were saying I’m getting contacted by constituents and they’re really hopping mad about this,” Ford says. “We know that the public in Britain really don’t like sleaze and corruption in their politicians.”

Former MP for North Shropshire Owen Paterson attending a conference in 2017 © JUSTIN TALLIS, AFP

Political chaos

Since he came to power in 2019, Boris Johnson and his government have been hit with a series of scandals that could have turned voters against him, but none seem to have caused irreparable damage so far.

This is down to a willingness from the public to give the government “the benefit of the doubt”, Ford says. Accusations of mismanagement of the health crisis — which has left the UK with one of the highest Covid death tolls in Europe with 142,000 Covid deaths so far — could be put down to the exceptional circumstances. Ford adds that a successful vaccine rollout “really bailed the government out” in terms of public opinion.

Even Johnson’s verbal gaffes, including reportedly saying in October 2020 he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than have another lockdown, could be put down to the fact “he was exhausted, he was exasperated, he was frustrated”, says Ford. “People will relate to that.”

Other scandals such as Covid rule-breaking from government ministers and damning revelations from former advisor Dominic Cummings have also failed to land a body blow on the prime minister’s reputation. This is partly because they happen so frequently, Ford says.

Leaping from crisis to crisis means that every time a scandal with the potential to sway public opinion happens, “something else comes along within a few days that takes the whole conversation into a different space. We can’t keep talking about the same issue for long enough to understand it”.

Sleaze leaves a stain

However, this might also add to a cumulative effect that leads voters to lose faith in a party over time. While individual sleaze scandals are unlikely to have a large impact on the electorate, Ford says there can be a “cumulative effect of scandal, on scandal, on scandal. That gets around the attention issue because it does gradually seep into the public consciousness”.

This is territory the prime minister and his government may now be straying into. Recent investigations into his finances have included reports Conservative donors helped Johnson pay for a flat renovation costing up to £200,000 — infamously including “£840-per-roll” gold wallpaper chosen by his wife Carrie Johnson.

On November 5 the prime minister was once again reported to the parliamentary standards committee for refusing to disclose the cost of a holiday that he and his family took over summer in a Spanish villa owned by the family of Conservative peer Zach Goldsmith. Then last week his government seemed to be excusing a MP for profiting from lobbying and attempting to dismantle the parliamentary standards committee in the process.

Fresh claims of corruption on Sunday morning will not help his case, and once the electorate perceive a government — or a politician — to be sleazy, the damage can be significant. The public may be able to excuse incompetence, but corruption is a harder charge to forgive, especially when those accused refuse to apologise.

In Paterson’s case, he maintained in his resignation statement that he was  “totally innocent” of any wrongdoing, despite having been found to be in the wrong.

Johnson may have more leeway: he is, as Ford says, the “kind of politician that doesn’t play by the rules so voters factor in a certain level of bad behaviour. That makes it harder to make this kind of thing to stick — it’s not like anyone who voted for Johnson in 2019 would be shocked and appalled to discover that he was a bit dodgy”.

But it is unlikely Johnson’s luck will last forever. Following this morning’s revelations, the prime minister’s personal approval rating has fallen to its lowest level on record, according to an opinion poll for the Observer newspaper. Meanwhile Conservative’s lead over Labour has fallen to a single percentage point.

The UK does not have to hold another general election until 2024, but evidence of just how damaging these latest scandals have been may show up in local elections and by-elections before then. If the Conservatives start losing safe seats it could be a sign that voters have had enough.

It is impossible to predict exactly when public opinion may turn on a governing party but, Ford says, “certainly repeated sleaze scandals like this will hasten the arrival of that point, if nothing else”.

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