PM accused of ‘running scared’ of Commons sleaze debate

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).”

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