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Boris Johnson admits he got it wrong on sleaze as MPs vote for second job restrictions

Labour says PM’s crackdown on outside work is ‘watered down’ version of reforms proposed by Starmer

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 17 November 2021 22:02 GMT
Owen Paterson broke lobbying rules, Boris Johnson admits

Boris Johnson has admitted he got it wrong on Owen Paterson, as a fortnight of sleaze rows sparked by his attempt to save the disgraced former MP ended with the Commons voting for a ban on consultancy jobs.

Speaking to Tory MPs at the backbench 1922 Committee, a contrite prime minister admitted: “On a clear road I crashed a car into a ditch.”

In a bid to draw a line under the avalanche of sleaze allegations, Downing Street said that the 297-0 vote in favour of Mr Johnson’s package of reforms to the rules on second jobs would “strengthen our parliamentary system”.

But Sir Keir Starmer said the PM’s plan amounted to a “watering down” of a Labour motion, which was defeated 231-282. He ordered his MPs to abstain in the later division on Mr Johnson’s amendment.

Just four Tory MPs – Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone, Nigel Mills and Dan Poulter – rebelled against a party whip ordering them to vote down Labour’s plan. Labour immediately launched digital ads individually targeting each Conservative MP who voted against, accusing them of trying to block action to “ban dodgy second jobs”.

The Johnson plan calls for an end to second jobs involving parliamentary consultancy, strategy or advice, as well as work that takes MPs away from their constituency and parliamentary responsibilities for an excessive amount of time. The latter measure comes after widespread anger over former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox spending hundreds of hours a year working as a commercial barrister.

Sir Keir said the PM’s proposals amounted to no more than “warm words” because they did not guarantee the parliamentary time necessary to enact detailed reforms to be drawn up by the Commons Standards Committee by the end of January.

And he said it was clear that the sleaze issue had undermined Mr Johnson’s standing with his own troops.

“It’s significant,” said the Labour leader. “I have been really struck by how many Tory MPs seem to have lost faith and confidence in the PM. It was noticeable at Prime Minister’s Questions how many gaps there were and how many MPs hadn’t turned up to support him.”

Notable by her absence from the vote in favour of Mr Johnson’s reforms was his predecessor Theresa May, who on Tuesday branded the PM’s handling of the Paterson affair “misplaced, ill-judged and just plain wrong”.

The vote came as a new poll by Savanta ComRes found that three-quarters (75 per cent) of the public are concerned about corruption in government, including seven in 10 of 2019 Conservative voters.

Mr Johnson came under sustained pressure over his attempt to get the former environment secretary off the hook for a 30-day suspension after he was found guilty by the Commons Standards Committee of lobbying ministers and watchdogs on behalf of two companies that were paying him £100,000 a year.

Giving evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee, the prime minister admitted it had been a “total mistake” for him to whip Tory MPs into voting to overrule the standards system to secure a right of appeal for the Shropshire North MP, who quit the following day after Mr Johnson U-turned.

“Do I regret that decision? I certainly do,” said Mr Johnson.

But he was upbraided by Labour’s Yvette Cooper for saying that Mr Paterson had “fallen foul of the standards commissioner”, as far as he could see.

“We have an independent process that has looked into this,” said Ms Cooper. “Every time you say ‘as far as I could see’ and you qualify it, you are undermining the independent system that all of us need to work.

“You need to have some integrity and to uphold the standards.” Mr Johnson’s attempt to defend Mr Paterson “creates an impression which is very unfortunate and very damaging to public life”, she said, asking: “Do you accept you have a responsibility … to establish much higher standards?”

“I do,” replied the PM. “Yes, I think it was a total mistake not to see that Owen’s breach of the rules made any discussion about anything else impossible. I totally accept that.”

Arriving at the 1922 Committee later, the prime minister was greeted by the usual banging of the tables to signify support from his troops.

But one Conservative MP at the meeting said the prime minister “sounded weak” and that his “authority is evaporating” while another added it had been a “rough” few weeks.

Some, however, were more effusive in their praise of Mr Johnson, whose party has dipped in the polls amid allegations of sleaze.

Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant posted on social media: “As I said at the 1922, with Boris present, he got it wrong, but he ‘was motivated by loyalty, compassion (for a man who had suffered the death of his wife) and humanity’. Something very rare in a prime minister.”

Labour said it was ready to take part in cross-party talks to improve the MPs’ code of conduct, but raised questions over exactly what work will be barred under Mr Johnson’s proposals.

Some senior Tory backbenchers have already said that they do not believe they will have to give up their consultancies, because they do not regard them as relevant to their parliamentary work.

And cabinet minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan today suggested that MPs could work for as much as 20 hours a week on second jobs without being caught by the ban on “unreasonable” commitments.

Asked if Sir Geoffrey would have to cut back on his legal work, she said: “The key is, is he doing a good job for his constituents? Do they think he’s doing a good job for them? And, from what I’ve heard, no one has stood up and said otherwise.

“But that he continues to practise what is his professional skill while he is a backbench MP, for me, is perfectly acceptable.”

She asked: “Are we saying 10 to 20 hours a week outside your work as an MP and a parliamentarian? If that’s what you chose to do as your choice, that’s fine.”

And Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who admitted he encouraged the PM to defend Mr Paterson, told MPs it was “a historic strength of our system that MPs should have a wider focus than the Westminster bubble” so that parliament can “benefit from MPs with a broader range of talents and professional backgrounds”.

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