He just doesn’t get it (yet) – owl
Boris Johnson has insisted that Britain is not “remotely a corrupt country” amid continuing fallout over the conduct of some MPs, scrutiny over politicians’ second jobs and concerns over sleaze in politics.
But Labour claimed that the prime minister’s failure to apologise for his role in undermining public trust in politics proved that “he doesn’t care about tackling corruption that has engulfed Downing Street, his government and the Conservative Party”.
And there were signs of growing fears among Tory MPs that the wave of negative publicity could deliver lasting damage to the party’s reputation, with one angry backbencher telling The Independent that the former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox had “taken the f***ing p***” by raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds in outside earnings at a time when many voters are facing financial difficulties.
The prime minister’s remarks on Wednesday followed the decision last week to order his MPs to prevent Owen Paterson’s suspension for breaking lobbying rules by creating a Tory-dominated committee – a move that provoked outrage at Westminster.
Despite accusations of “corruption” and the Conservatives dipping in the opinion polls, Mr Johnson twice declined to apologise for his role in the politically toxic row when tackled on the issue at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.
“I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, nor do I believe that our institutions are corrupt,” he said.
“We have a very, very tough system of parliamentary democracy and scrutiny, not least by the media. I think what you have got is cases where, sadly, MPs have broken the rules in the past, may be guilty of breaking the rules today. What I want to see is them facing appropriate sanctions.”
Mr Johnson, who said he would not comment on individual cases, stressed that MPs found to have broken standards rules “should be punished”.
He warned them directly: “The rules say the two crucial things: you must put your job as an MP first and you must devote yourself primarily and above all to your constituents and the people who send you to Westminster, to parliament.
“And they also say that you should not use your position as an MP to lobby or otherwise intervene on behalf of any outside commercial interest. It is not only that you have to register those interests – you can’t lobby or make representation while an MP on behalf of those interests.
“Those are the rules and they must be enforced and those who don’t obey them should, of course, face sanctions.”
Despite the prime minister’s attempt to draw a line under the sleaze row, one senior Tory backbencher told The Independent: “I don’t know anybody who thinks the last week has been well handled – and that includes government ministers who were involved in what was done.
“Of course there is reputational damage, some of which is about not looking competent and some of which is a — mostly unjustified — sense that there is some ill-defined idea of sleaze connected to the party. It doesn’t look good and I think we all know that.”
The Conservative MP Bob Neill said: “MPs do feel very let down. This is a reminder that the prime ministers and his advisers in Downing Street must not take the parliamentary party for granted.”
Earlier, Labour demanded an investigation into Sir Geoffrey after it emerged that he appeared to conduct lucrative work advising the government of the British Overseas Territory on a corruption case from his Commons office in September.
In a statement issued earlier, Sir Geoffrey said he “does not believe” he breached MPs’ rules, and also revealed that the Tory chief whip had advised him it was “appropriate” to vote via a proxy on a separate occasion in April while advising the British Virgin Islands from the Caribbean.
Several media reports claimed on Wednesday evening that Sir Geoffrey has made at least £5.5 million from a second job while he has been an MP.
While Mr Johnson declined to comment on the case, one Conservative MP highlighted the unease in the parliamentary ranks, telling The Independent: “A lot of people are p****d off and, ultimately, the buck stops with Boris, so this is not doing him any good.”
A second backbencher also deployed an expletive when summing up the current situation, saying they were furious Sir Geoffrey had “taken the f*****g p**s”, provoking public fury about all MPs.
“When Covid started, I was volunteering to support the NHS and vulnerable people and there he was taking off for the British Virgin Islands for a month and bringing us all into disrepute,” the MP added.