Conservative MPs face intense scrutiny of their personal financial affairs this morning as the party’s ongoing sleaze scandal dominates British politics for a second week in a row. Boris Johnson bottled yesterday’s emergency Commons debate on MPs’ standards, went on a chicken run to Northumberland and refused to apologize for the Owen Paterson debacle, allowing Labour leader Keir Starmer to accuse him of “running scared” and “cowering away” in one of his punchiest parliamentary performances to date. Today’s newspapers are the most brutal No. 10 has faced since, er, last week, with the story once again making every front page. The danger Downing Street faces this morning as it limps through to recess is that the next few days leave a vacuum filled by journalists dissecting Conservative MPs’ entries in the register of interests — as Caribbean-based part-time MP Geoffrey Cox is finding out as he becomes the next top Tory fighting for his occasional political career. (Politico)
Sir Geoffrey yesterday revealed he has earned more than £1million from outside legal work over the past year on top of his £82,000 salary as a backbencher.
A Whitehall insider said: ‘While he should have been in the UK working for his constituents he’s been over in the British Virgin Islands doing his second job working as a barrister and advising those accused of trousering cash for their mates.’
Prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of “running scared” of scrutiny over his botched attempt to neuter parliament’s independent standards system, after he dodged a House of Commons debate on sleaze.
Mr Johnson’s blamed a long-standing appointment to visit a hospital in the north-east for him missing a three-hour emergency debate, sparked by his effort to create a Tory-dominated committee to rewrite sleaze rules after an ally was found guilty of paid lobbying.
Former minister Owen Paterson quit as an MP last week after the PM U-turned on his plan, which would have got him off the hook for a 30-day suspension recommended by a standards watchdog and given him the chance to appeal.
In a TV interview during his visit to Hexham General Hospital in Northumberland, the PM three times refused to offer an apology for his actions, as demanded by Labour.
And he also refused to comment on new research suggesting that peerages are being granted to all wealthy Conservative donors who take on a temporary role as the party treasurer and increase their donations beyond £3 million.
Mr Johnson said that his timetable for returning to London by train meant he was unable to attend the debate, where the government will instead be represented by chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster Stephen Barclay.
But Sir Keir Starmer – who will lead the debate for Labour – said: “Boris Johnson does not have the decency either to defend or apologise for his actions.
“Rather than repairing the damage he has done, the prime minister is running scared.
“When required to lead, he has chosen to hide. His concern, as always, is self-preservation not the national interest.”
And Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner pointed out that Mr Johnson flew from Glasgow to London last week for dinner in a private club at which he is believed to have discussed the Paterson affair with former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore.
“When his friend got found guilty of corruption, Boris Johnson flew back from a climate change conference on a private jet for a crisis meeting at an all-male members’ club,” said Ms Rayner.
“Today he is running scared from an emergency debate in Parliament on corruption and standards in politics.”
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle played down reports that he would be announcing his own review of the House’s standards procedures, telling Sky News that he first wanted to hear MPs’ comments in today’s debate and consider an upcoming report from the standards committee.
Labour are demanding that the prime minister apologise for attempting last week to neuter the Commons standards system to help his friend Mr Paterson avoid punishment after he was found guilty of lobbying for companies paying him more than £100,000 a year.
The Speaker described the events around the Paterson case as a “very dark week for politics” and said it was important to “get this House to a much better place than where we left it last week.”
He said he would consult with standards committee chair Chris Bryant, saying: “We’ve got to move this House forward to where the public have trust and faith in the politicians. This House has to be, quite rightly, not tarnished.”
Mr Johnson said that “frankly, I don’t think there’s much more to be said” about the Paterson case, which led to the Commons standards committee recommending a 30-day suspension for an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.
The PM ordered Tory MPs under a three-line whip to support a plan last week to help Paterson avoid the punishment, but was forced into a humiliating climbdown after opposition parties boycotted his proposed Conservative-dominated committee to rewrite sleaze rules.
Downing Street has indicated there are “no plans” for the former MP – who quit the Commons last week after Mr Johnson’s U-turn – to be given a peerage.
But asked if he could rule out sending Mr Paterson to the House of Lords, the PM would say only: “There’s been absolutely no discussion about that.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said that the prime minister’s trip to Northumberland has been in his diary since before today’s sleaze debate was announced last Thursday.
The PM travelled to the north-east by train and will return this afternoon by the same mode of transport, making it impossible for him to reach Westminster for the start of the debate at 4.30pm.
But he faced accusations of trying to dodge scrutiny – particularly after he used a private jet to return from Glasgow to London last week to attend a dinner in a male-only club.
No 10 insisted that Mr Barclay was “the right person” to lead for the government in the three-hour debate because of his cross-Whitehall responsibilities.
Asked whether the PM agreed with environment secretary George Eustice that the standards row was a “storm in a teacup”, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “We fully recognise the strong feeling on all sides of the House on this.
“We supported the principle of a right to appeal to make the system fairer and the importance of that to be done on a cross-party basis, and we recognised that wasn’t possible.”
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle confirmed he will make a statement ahead of the emergency debate on standards on Monday.
Sir Lindsay said: “Last week did not show our democracy in the best light.
“I hope today’s debate will give members the chance to express their views and help us move forward.
“I also hope MPs will consider their language to get the right message across.”
The PM’s official spokesman was asked why Mr Johnson could not fly back to London as he did from the Cop26 summit last week.
The spokesman said: “I gave you the reason for that flight before.”
He added: “We think the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, whose department is the lead on this area, is the right person to lead (the debate).”
A motion at a full council meeting at TDC calling on the local authority to express support for the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill was passed by 17 votes to 16 after having failed at an attempt in February.
Green MP Caroline Lucas’s private member’s bill in parliament seeks to make it legally binding for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, protect and restore habitats and set up an independent citizens’ assembly to make recommendations on the climate crisis to parliament. It now has the backing of North Devon and Torridge district councils as well as several other local authorities in Devon, including Devon County Council.
More than 100 MPs have backed the bill, but the Conservative member for North Devon Selaine Saxby is not one of them.
She said she is in favour of a number of environmental measures but argued many of them are already going to become law in the government’s own Environment Bill, due to be passed next week.
Ms Saxby is also critical of the idea in Caroline Lucas’s bill for a Citizens’ Assembly that would make policy recommendations on climate. She said: “What the CEE bill does is it fundamentally changes the democratic system under which we operate at Westminster and that is why I cannot support it.
“I’m not in favour of changing our democratic process. If our local councils feel that the democratic process needs changing then I hope that they will put themselves forward for parliament and then try and battle with the legislation.”
That argument has been echoed by councillor Simon Newton (Conservatives, Winkleigh) the leader of the Conservatives at TDC. Speaking at the full council meeting, Cllr Newton claimed the intent of the citizens’ assembly was “to try to take control” of climate policy out of the hands of democratically elected MPs. He said he was against such an idea in all circumstances: “It doesn’t matter what colour the government is, it is the principle.”
However, activists have dismissed these claims. Peter Scott, a member of Zero Hour, a campaign group trying to get the CEE bill passed into law, said the argument that the citizens’ assembley was undemocratic was“pathetic.” He explained that the assembly would only make recommendations and not dictate policy decisions to parliament.
He dismissed claims that the Environment Bill will do enough to protect the environment and address the climate crisis, arguing: “The Environment Bill is a post-Brexit catch-up bill which is designed to preserve environmental standards following the UK’s exit from Europe. It has nothing whatsoever to do with dealing with the climate crisis. In fact, climate change is hardly mentioned in the bill at all.
“It contains purely domestic measures for enhancing nature. It doesn’t deal with the destruction of nature that the UK causes around the world.”
It’s not the first time Mr Scott and the North Devon MP have disagreed. Mr Scott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation in June claiming an article by Ms Saxby was inaccurate. The regulator disagreed, but Mr Scott is appealing that decision.
Many scientists support the CEE bill. Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor describes it as “very, very important way to take us towards a safer future.”
A recent report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), a United Nations body, found that climate change could not be ruled out as a cause of events like ice sheet collapse, abrupt ocean circulation changes, and unpredictably extreme heat rises could not be ruled out due to climate change.
It said: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” and that global warming is set to exceed the “safe” zone of 1.5 degrees if emissions continue to rise at current rates.
In 1918 a deadly influenza pandemic swept the world, and doctors had a tough time diagnosing it. The symptoms were so unusual that many doctors, without the benefits of modern medicine, thought their patients had cholera, dengue fever or even typhoid.
The descendants of that H1N1 virus are circulating today as seasonal flu, yet mercifully the worst of the symptoms are consigned to the history books. Flu will put you in bed with a temperature and give you a cough, but it will not make your eyes bleed.
Neither will Covid, but some of its early symptoms were unusual: alongside a persistent cough, patients reported muscle aches and a lost sense of taste and smell. As other viruses make a comeback, from the “super-cold” to seasonal flu, it is becoming increasingly hard to tell what it is that we have.
Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London has been tracking the symptoms of millions of users of his Zoe Covid app since the start of the pandemic. “We’re not getting the classic symptoms nearly as much,” he says. “It’s much harder to tell between a cold and Covid now.”
That is a worry for GPs such as Simon Hodes, in Watford. “Monday was one of the busiest days I can remember in my career,” he says. “It was literally: cough, cough, cold, runny nose, temperature, fever. I don’t know what we’re dealing with when they come in.”
It would be a mistake to assume that the coronavirus is no longer causing serious illness: more than 1,100 people in Britain are dying of it every week.
The Delta variant, with which about one in 50 people are now infected, is about twice as infectious as a cold and three times as infectious as seasonal flu: research from Imperial College London suggests your chance of catching it from contact with an infectious person is one in ten. The virus is spreading quickly among households with children.
But for the majority of its carriers the cases are mild. Most who catch it are young: under-20s make up half of the caseload, and children’s immune systems are better at fighting it. And most of the adults who catch it are vaccinated, so their cases are generally less severe too.
Common cold symptoms are caused when the body’s immune system reacts to one of a number of viruses, says Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at Leicester University. Symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and a runny nose are caused by cytokines, released by the body’s virus-fighting B-cells (which make antibodies) and T-cells (which attack infected cells).
But in years to come, as newer variants emerge, experts such as Tang believe that Covid symptoms could get even milder. “We will see fewer of the unusual neurological features like altered smell and taste, tinnitus and psychological issues — though, as with flu, the muscle aches, fatigue, fever, coughs and headaches may persist.”
What remains odd about Covid is the variety of symptoms. John McCauley, director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre at the Francis Crick Institute in London, is one of the world’s leading flu experts. “The consistency between patients is not as simple as with something like measles, which has well-defined symptoms. The loss of taste and smell in some Covid patents is unusual, but many do not have this: it seems to be a whole spectrum.”
This inconsistency is not unheard of: when McCauley caught swine flu in 2009, his only symptom was muscle ache.
While 38,000 people are testing positive for Covid a day (and many more unaware of it), Spector says the number of people catching colds could be four to five times higher. Colds, which are caused by a number of viruses including rhinoviruses, seasonal coronaviruses and RSV, have been circulating for a long time in humans. “Newborn babies and children are exposed to all of these viruses from a young age,” Tang says. “But because these viruses have adapted to humans to some extent, the illnesses have been generally milder than with Covid, which is a new virus.”
Since “freedom day” on July 19, we have become reacquainted with old foes that are taking advantage of our immune systems being out of practice. Since September social media users have spoken of a “super-cold”, which is simply a made-up name for all the illnesses that we have not had for two years. Data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that calls to the NHS 111 service about cold and flu symptoms are much higher than expected for this time of year, particularly among patients aged 15 to 44.
One piece of fortune has been flu rates, which are below average for this time of year. But if levels surge, it may be confused with Covid: a high temperature, a cough and muscle aches are symptoms of both. This matters: if a flu patient is admitted, quick diagnosis is key if they are to benefit from anti-flu drugs such as oseltamivir.
McCauley has spent the past months developing a flu jab for the months ahead. The uptake is expected to be high, with about 63 per cent of over-65s having had it. With so little flu in the world, it has been hard to know what to base the flu jab on. “It’s really too early to tell [how effective] it will be this year. What we can say is that we have the viruses well covered, or pretty well covered.”
How bad a flu outbreak is in a given year mainly depends on which strain circulates. “H3N2 viruses are probably the worst overall, with the elderly being particularly vulnerable,” McCauley says. These viruses emerged from the 1968 Hong Kong flu outbreak, which killed an estimated million people worldwide.
Flu or no flu, a cocktail of respiratory viruses looks likely to dominate this winter — and to tell them apart, many countries are acknowledging the wide range of symptoms that Covid is causing. The WHO lists 13.
Britain has not followed suit, opting instead to list just the big three: temperature, cough, and loss of taste or smell. Spector has been campaigning for the NHS to expand its official symptom list for 18 months. “They’re refusing to add flu and cold-like symptoms,” he says. “Perhaps they’re worried about testing capacity or think it’ll create confusion.”
With such an overlap in symptoms, the only way to be confident that your illness is not Covid is to take a test. The coronavirus is like a cold for most, but for about 170 people a day it is a death sentence.
Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of trying to “take down” the standards watchdog for his personal interests as Downing Street made a new bid to stop the regulator investigating the controversy around his flat refurbishment.
The Labour leader said Johnson was leading the Conservative party “through the sewers and the stench lingers,” highlighting a pattern of behaviour where the government “goes after” those charged with enforcing the rules.
Days after Johnson was forced by a public and party backlash to abandon attempts to overhaul the standards watchdog, No 10 argued on Monday that the prime minister did not need to declare how much he was loaned by a Tory donor to make over his Downing Street flat.
The commissioner, Kathryn Stone, is set to rule within weeks on a potential investigation into whether Johnson properly declared the funding as an MP. She will decide after the Electoral Commission finishes its inquiry the Conservatives’ role in helping to fund the £50,000-plus refurb.
But on Monday Johnson’s spokesman said the matter was declared in the list of ministerial interests and said there was no need for the prime minister to have registered it on the list of MPs’ interests as well – putting it outside the remit of the commissioner.
Asked if the prime minister believed Stone should be able to investigate the flat refurbishment, the spokesman said: “Obviously it’s a matter for her on that. The interest, as you know, has been transparently declared by the prime minister following advice from Lord [Christopher] Geidt, the independent adviser.
“And the Commons rulebook is very clear that such ministerial code declarations do not need to be double-declared. And the flat was clearly a ministerial matter, as the PM only occupies it by virtue of his office.”
A Downing Street source dismissed Starmer’s accusation that the prime minister had tried to “take down” Stone, claiming it was “not true”.
Labour has repeatedly called on Stone to investigate whether Johnson should have declared a loan from a Tory donor, David Brownlow, to fund his flat redecoration. The cost has never been formally confirmed, although party accounts showed it covered a £52,802 “bridging loan”, which was later paid by Lord Brownlow and subsequently repaid by Johnson.
An inquiry by Geidt, the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, found Johnson had acted “unwisely” by not taking enough interest in the funding of the renovations, but not broken any rules.
“It is not for the prime minister or cabinet ministers to decide what the independent anti-corruption commissioner investigates,” said Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader. Stone has previously investigated Johnson three times, including an inquiry into the funding of his holiday in Mustique by a Tory donor and the late registration of financial interests.
Johnson was absent from parliament as MPs debated the Westminster sleaze scandal on Monday, where several Tory MPs were among those criticising the government for its efforts last week to overturn a 30-day suspension for Owen Paterson, a Conservative backbencher who broke the lobbying ban.
In the process, the government also tried to announce reform of the wider standards system for MPs, proposing that John Whittingdale, a cabinet minister and former boss of Johnson’s wife, Carrie, should be put in charge of the shake-up. But the move was abandoned after a backlash among the public, media and MPs.
Starmer said: “It wasn’t a tactical mistake, an innocent misjudgment swiftly corrected by a U-turn. It was the prime minister’s way of doing business. A pattern of behaviour.
“When the prime minister’s adviser on the ministerial code found against the home secretary, the prime minister kept the home secretary and forced out the adviser. When the Electoral Commission investigated the Conservative party, the prime minister threatened to shut it down. And when the commissioner for standards looked into the prime minister’s donations, the prime minister tried to take her down.”
With the prime minister taking the train back from a hospital visit in Northumberland, it was left to Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, to expressed “regret” in the House of Commons for the government’s misjudged attempts to change the rules.
Johnson refused to apologise for the furore over standards in an interview earlier in the day. But several Tory backbenchers were unimpressed with his refusal to attend. Mark Harper, a former chief whip, said: “Politics is a team game. It’s essential to work with your colleagues to deliver anything. But if the team captain is to expect loyalty from the backbenchers and for minsters to listen to the direction of the team captain, they deserve that decisions are well thought through and soundly based.
“As on this occasion … if the team captain gets it wrong, then I think he should come and apologise to the public and to this house. That’s the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership.”
Boris Johnson has been heavily scrutinised in the past few weeks for his handling of sleaze within his own party, rising Covid cases, and his own rather lax approach to major environmental issues in the UK.
The prime minister has repeatedly refused to answer direct questions on these pressing problems for weeks, to the growing frustration of the public.
Here are just four questions Johnson needs to answer right now.
1. Why won’t you apologise to the public over the Owen Paterson debacle?
All Tory MPs were whipped to vote against suspending fellow Conservative MP Owen Paterson last week.
The independent watchdog advised Parliament to suspend Paterson for 30 days after he was found guilty of lobbying on behalf of two companies which both paid him to be a consultant outside of Westminster.
While Paterson was initially let off, furious public backlash triggered a surprising U-turn from the government just the day after the Parliamentary vote.
Paterson then resigned but questions remain over how the government chose to back a former Tory cabinet minister rather than the traditional disciplinary process for MPs.
2. Why did you not appear in the Commons to debate changing the MPs’ watchdog?
Johnson did not field questions from the despatch box in the Commons on Monday when MPs were voicing their concerns over changing the Parliamentary Standards Committee, an amendment championed by Tories just as Paterson was found guilty last week.
On Monday, Johnson said he was returned to London by train and so would not be able to attend the debate as he would not be in Westminster for its start at 4.30pm.
It did not escape many people that Johnson had actually used the least environmentally friendly method of transport when leaving the climate summit COP26 in Glasgow and travelled by private jet last week, just so he could go for dinner with a friend.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said the hospital engagement had been in his diary since before the Tory sleaze debate erupted last week.
Asked by a reporter if he regretted “the huge error of judgement” to “rewrite the Parliamentary rules” – as a way to prevent Paterson’s suspension – Johnson dodged the question and said: “I’m here to look at what we’re doing to encourage people to get their booster jabs.”
3. How will you address accusations of more Tory sleaze linked to the House of Lords?
Johnson has so far refused to comment on the joint investigation between The Sunday Times and Open Democracy which found Tory donors who gave £3 million or more to the Conservative Party would become peers in the House of Lords.
Johnson did dismiss claims that he had already decided to make Paterson a peer after throwing him under the bus in his U-turn last week, and said: “There’s been absolutely no discussion about that.”
4. Why will you not wear a mask in crowded areas, despite advising the public that they should do so?
Even though this argument does not stand up when it comes to curbing Covid transmission, the prime minister has also been seen not wearing a mask when surrounded by people he doesn’t know, such as at COP26 when sat next to 95-year-old national treasure Sir David Attenborough.
Even during his hospital visit on Monday when he was surrounded by medical staff in masks – and vulnerable patients – Johnson was photographed without a face covering.