Boris Johnson on Wednesday marched his Conservative MPs up to an exposed political hilltop to fight a battle few relished: to scrap Westminster’s anti-sleaze rules and help a colleague who had “egregiously” lobbied ministers for £100,000 a year.
At shortly after 10.30am on Thursday, Johnson marched his defeated ragged force back down the hill, harried by a hostile media and an opposition in full cry. A mood of despair among Tory MPs quickly crystallised into hard anger.
When Johnson led almost 250 Tory MPs into the House of Commons division lobbies on Wednesday, he will have noted the sullen looks, but one Tory MP said it was worse than that: “There were MPs in tears going through the lobby.”
More than 100 Tory MPs failed to vote with the prime minister, even though — according to one backbencher — some were told “they would lose funding for their constituency” if they failed to toe the line.
Those MPs who followed the Downing Street edict — enforced by a three-line whip — are now in the crosshairs of Labour as the Tories who “voted for sleaze”. Peter Bone, one Tory MP, said his constituency office was vandalised overnight.
Meanwhile Owen Paterson, the former minister whose paid lobbying activities were described as “egregious” by the Commons standards committee, was left to face his fate by Downing Street.
Within hours of Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, announcing the U-turn over the reform of the standards regime, Paterson declared he was quitting “the cruel world” of politics.
As the dust settled on a shambolic 24 hours, many seething Conservative MPs were asking how Johnson and his chief whip, Mark Spencer, had contrived such a spectacular defeat.
The plan to overhaul the standards regime, introducing an appeals process and thereby offering Paterson a reprieve, was disclosed to the Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer, on Tuesday night.
The newspaper, and in particular its columnist and former editor Charles Moore, were passionate supporters of Paterson. Last week Moore wrote of the “hounding” of the former environment secretary, a high-profile Brexiter.
Johnson controversially flew back from the COP26 summit in Glasgow to London to attend a Telegraph journalists’ reunion at the Garrick that evening, and was pictured by the Mirror leaving the club with Moore.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief aide, said in July this year that the prime minister always referred to the Telegraph as “my real boss” and the plan was approvingly splashed across the paper’s front page.
It took the shape of an amendment, tabled by former minister Dame Andrea Leadsom, which aimed to replace the standards system with a new one — drawn up by a committee with a Tory majority and chaired by John Whittingdale, the former boss of the prime minister’s wife Carrie.
Rees-Mogg and David Davis, former minister and friend of Paterson, were involved. Then Mark Spencer, chief whip, took the unusual step of ordering Tory MPs to support it, effectively turning the issue of MPs’ standards from a cross-party House of Commons matter into government policy.
Government members were told to back the amendment or face the sack. Angela Richardson, a parliamentary aide to Michael Gove, resigned rather than vote for the proposal, but on Thursday she was reinstated.
One Tory MP said: “People are apoplectic with the chief. He was threatening to sack people, but in the case of Angela, he didn’t even follow through on the threat. His authority is shot.”
Others blamed Paterson for putting his colleagues in such an invidious position in the first place. “Why he could not have resigned 24 hours ago, I’ve no idea,” said one backbencher.
Another longstanding friend of Paterson, said: “He should have just taken the punishment and moved on. Now the whole thing has blown up into something much bigger.”
Some senior Tories believe the shambolic episode was less about Paterson — who was in a supermarket when Rees-Mogg pulled the rug from under his feet — and more about Johnson himself.
The prime minister has been investigated by Kathryn Stone, the independent standards commissioner, on three occasions in the past three years. He now faces the prospect of a fourth investigation into donations he received for the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street residence.
Stone could consider whether a donation to Conservative party funds, intended to pay for the revamp of Johnson’s flat, should have been declared by the prime minister.
Lord Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial standards, cleared him of breaching the ministerial code in May. However, MPs have speculated that Johnson is fearful of a further probe by Stone.
Writing in a series of tweets, Cummings claimed the amendment “was really about the PM and his own lies” about donations and not Paterson.
Cummings claimed Johnson was keen to oust Stone. “Part of the point of yesterday is the removal of K Stone,” he tweeted. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng also suggested on Thursday morning she should resign.
Johnson’s personal financial arrangements have come under scrutiny in recent months and on Thursday he declared he had received a free holiday at a luxurious Spanish villa linked to Lord Zac Goldsmith, a former MP whom Johnson ennobled.
The latest update to the register of ministerial interests revealed that Johnson’s near week-long stay in the Marbella property in October was funded by the Goldsmith family.
Stone cleared Johnson of breaking the ministerial code of conduct earlier this year after launching an investigation into claims he may have broken rules in the way he declared a new-year holiday in the Caribbean.
However, in 2019 she found Johnson had failed to register a 20 per cent share in a property in Somerset within the 28-day time limit, noting the “over-casual attitude” of the prime minister towards obeying the rules.
Just months before, Johnson had been forced to make a “full and unreserved apology” in the Commons over the late declaration of more than £52,000 of income mostly relating to book royalty payments.
Thursday’s Commons U-turn has left Johnson and Rees-Mogg looking to rebuild cross-party consensus to reshape the standards regime. But one ally of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “laughable” that the Tories were now proposing cross-party talks.
“They didn’t want them yesterday, they have just been caught red-handed trying to corrupt politics,” the ally said.
Some Tory MPs hope the storm will quickly pass, but one party strategist said: “We need to watch the ‘one rule for us, one rule for them’ narrative. There’s a risk we fall into sleaze and complacency.”
Mark Harper, former Tory chief whip, was blunt: “This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as an MP.” He added: “This must not happen again.”
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe
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