‘Running scared’: Tories join attack on ‘cowardly’ Boris Johnson as he dodges sleaze debate

Prime minister refuses to apologise over standards vote fiasco

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 08 November 2021 22:58
Boris Johnson refuses to apologise for handling of sleaze scandal

Boris Johnson has been accused of “running scared” after he dodged scrutiny in parliament of his botched attempt to save a Tory MP from punishment for sleaze.

Conservative MPs joined attacks on the prime minister after he dodged a three-hour emergency debate in the House of Commons prompted by his failed bid to rewrite parliament’s standards rules.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that after “giving the green light to corruption” by trying to get his ally Owen Paterson off the hook last week, the prime minster had chosen to “cower away” rather than face the music and apologise.

And Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper told MPs: “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.”

The Scottish National Party submitted a formal request to the Metropolitan Police to investigate Mr Johnson and the Conservative party over “potential criminal misconduct” after the award of peerages to nine former party treasurers who had given the Tories £3m or more.

And the chair of the Commons standards committee, Chris Bryant, told The Independent he was “infuriated” by ministers’ indication that they will block a Commons vote to approve the panel’s finding that Mr Paterson had committed an “egregious case of paid advocacy” when he lobbied ministers and watchdogs on behalf of two companies which paid him a total of £100,000 a year.

Mr Johnson ducked the three-hour emergency debate by visiting a hospital in Northumberland, leaving cabinet colleague Stephen Barclay to face furious MPs.

Accusing the prime minister of “running scared”, Sir Keir Starmer said: “Last week the prime minister damaged himself, he damaged his party and he damaged our democracy. He led his party through the sewers and the stench lingers.

“This week he had the chance to clean up, apologise to the country and finally accept the rules apply to him and his friends. But instead of stepping up, he has hidden away. Instead of clearing his mess, he has left his side knee deep in it. Instead of leading from the front, he has cowered away. He is not a serious leader and the joke isn’t funny any more.”

The Labour leader said that the prime minister had “corroded” voters’ trust, “trashed” democracy with his attempt last week to appoint a Tory-dominated committee to rewrite sleaze rules in a way which would allow Paterson to avoid the 30-day suspension recommended by the standards committee.

Mr Barclay expressed “regret” on behalf of himself and other ministers for last week’s “mistake”.

But Starmer – who had demanded a full apology from the PM – retorted: “It wasn’t a tactical mistake, an innocent misjudgement swiftly corrected by a U-turn. It was the prime minister’s way of doing business.”

He called on MPs to honour the memory of murdered colleagues Sir David Amess, Jo Cox and Airey Neave by defeating the “politics of cynicism” promoted by the prime minister.

Conservative MP Aaron Bell – who rebelled in last week’s vote – said that Mr Johnson had put fellow members of the 2019 intake in an “invidious” position by ordering them to bail out Mr Paterson last week.

Tory member of the standards committee Mark Fletcher said he had had “no problem” backing the report which condemned Mr Paterson, and would do the same again.

The Bolsover MP, who also entered the Commons in 2019, said: “Two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong.”

And Tory former cabinet minister Jeremy Wright, a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Mr Johnson’s actions had been “wholly wrong” and ministers had indulged in “unfair and gratuitous” attacks on the competence and integrity of independent standards commissioner Kathryn Stone, who is reported to have received death threats.

In a TV interview during his visit to Hexham General Hospital, Mr Johnson three times refused to apologise for whipping Tory MPs to vote against the suspension of Paterson, who quit as an MP following the prime minister’s humiliating climbdown the following day.

Mr Johnson said that “frankly, I don’t think there’s much more to be said” about the Paterson affair and did not rule out offering a peerage to the disgraced Brexiteer, saying only: “There’s been absolutely no discussion about that.”

He also came into further criticism for not wearing a mask during the visit. Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth said: “So not only is Boris Johnson too cowardly to turn up to parliament to defend the sleazy corrupt government shenanigans of recent days, he’s now irresponsibly parading round a hospital without a mask.”

Labour branded Johnson a “Phileas Fogg” after calculating that his trip to the northeast brought the total distance he had travelled to avoid embarrassment to 26,000 miles – the same as the fictional explorer’s journey around the world.

They pointed to his Spanish holiday during this year’s supply chain crisis, his trip to Afghanistan as foreign secretary at the time of a vote on Heathrow’s new runway, and a trip to Canada as London mayor during riots in the capital in 2011.

There were cries of “Run, Boris, Run!” in the Commons chamber as Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain told MPs: “This is a prime minister who flew to Afghanistan to escape a vote on Heathrow when he was foreign secretary, and has driven to the northeast to escape questions today.”

Labour MP Tan Dhesi branded the prime minister a “tin-pot dictator”, while Ms Chamberlain said his actions were comparable to autocratic regimes in Russia and China.

“This is almost the kind of behaviour we would expect to see in the Duma in Moscow, National People’s Congress in Beijing, not in the House of Commons,” she told MPs.

“They say a fish rots from the head down, and I’m disappointed to see that the prime minister has chosen not to turn up today to answer questions… You can’t help but feel that he thinks the rules don’t apply to him.”

Mr Bryant appealed for the government to table a motion which he had drafted for debate tomorrow, which would have overturned last week’s vote and allowed MPs to affirm his committee’s judgement that Mr Paterson’s behaviour was “inappropriate”.

He told The Independent that he was “infuriated” by Mr Barclay’s refusal to agree to the plan, adding: “An apology is of no value if you’re not prepared to put things right.”

Mr Bryant said his cross-party committee – which includes seven MPs and seven independent lay members – intends to complete its own review of the Commons code of conduct by Christmas.

And Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said that would be the time for MPs to work on a cross-party basis to consider any reforms needed to restore faith in the system.

Sir Lindsay described the events around the Paterson case as a “very dark week for politics” which had “tarnished” politics in voters’ eyes. But he stopped short of announcing his own review of the system, as had been predicted over the weekend.

Mr Bryant said that Ms Stone had been bullied, threatened and undermined by ministers in a “cowardly and unfair” way.

“We have a duty not just to our constituents but to the nation, not just to this generation of voters but to future generations of voters, to protect the reputation of parliament not to undermine it,” he told MPs.

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