Boris Johnson told to apologise over Owen Paterson sleaze scandal in parliament

Labour leader Keir Starmer urged the prime minister to ‘take responsibility’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 08 November 2021 00:11
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<p>Boris Johnson has been challenged by Keir Starmer </p>

Boris Johnson has been challenged by Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson to apologise to the country for his handling of the corruption scandal engulfing the government.

The Labour leader said a no-show by the prime minister at a parliamentary debate on Monday would demonstrate that he was “either too arrogant or too cowardly to take responsibility” for the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal which saw the government attempt to scrap a standards watchdog to support the MP.

And other opposition parties on Sunday night pushed for a sleaze inquiry to be set up.

Labour took to the airwaves on Sunday hunting for resignations – with shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire demanding senior Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg does so, and then urging Mr Johnson himself to “consider his position”.

“If I was [Rees-Mogg], I’d be considering my position. That’s what I think he should do today. I think his position is untenable,” she told Sky News, adding that the prime minister should also “consider his position this weekend”.

But the opposition is worried Mr Johnson will try to deflect blame for the episode – which ended up a calamitous U-turn late last week – by sending an underling to take his spot in parliament on Monday.

Speaking on the eve of the parliamentary showdown, Sir Keir told reporters: “Boris Johnson needs to attend this debate, answer for his mistakes, apologise to the country and take action to undo the damage he has done.

“The country is yet to hear a word of contrition over his attempts to create one rule for him and his friends and another for everyone else. He must now come to the House and say sorry.

“And he needs to go beyond just words. Today, the prime minister must begin to clean out the filthy Augean stable he has created.”

Sir Keir demanded that Boris Johnson confirm he would not nominate Owen Paterson for a peerage, and branded the prime minister’s approach to party discipline “disgraceful”.

The Labour leader suggested that Mr Johnson “believes there should be one rule for him and another for everyone else – and that the Tories are concerned with their own interests, not those of the country”.

Speaking earlier in the day, Sir Keir said that Mr Johnson could be starting fights with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol and fishing rights to distract from sleaze scandals in Westminster. “I am afraid that I can't help think that the prime minister is constantly trying to pick a fight on things like this so he hopes people don't look elsewhere in the forest, which are things like the Owen Paterson affairs,” he told the BBC.

Ahead of the debate Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain, who secured the emergency debate, said last week’s events were “just the latest example of political cronyism and corruption” – citing “dodgy” Covid contracts and a luxury villa holiday paid for by a Tory donor which was later cleared by the independent commissioner for standards.

She added: “We need an independent public inquiry, with the powers and resources to get to the bottom of this Conservative sleaze scandal.”

Under the proposed terms of the inquiry, witnesses would be compelled to provide evidence and the investigating body would be able to secure written documents.

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is reportedly planning to launch a review of the Commons’ standards procedures in the wake of the scandal – though he is expected to wait until after Monday's three-hour debate.

MPs were deluged with angry correspondence after the Tories tried to abolish an independent watchdog to let Mr Paterson off the hook for a Commons suspension. Mr Paterson, who ended the affair by resigning, had taken tens of thousands of pounds in cash from two companies he was lobbying for.

The episode was the latest in a string of scandals relating to lobbying, MPs’ pay, and political donations in recent months - including revelations that former prime minister David Cameron had personally lobbied chancellor Rishi Sunak on behalf of now-collapsed bank Greensill Capital.

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