Last week, the Tory Party leadership made a disastrous attempt to save the career of Conservative MP Owen Paterson. At the same time, Johnson and co. hoped to deliver a death blow to the Parliamentary Standards Committee and the Standards Commissioner.
This unscrupulous manoeuvre backfired, however. Under a three-line whip, Tory MPs had outrageously voted to change the rules so as to save one of their own. But a fierce backlash forced the government into making a screeching U-turn. Paterson handed in his resignation, and the Prime Minister was left with egg on his face.
The catastrophic fallout from this botched move could have profound consequences – both for the Tories and the current occupant of Number 10. Beyond the usual calls for ‘reforms’ and ‘reviews’, many at Westminster are now asking whether Boris Johnson’s time is up.
A slump in the polls will not have helped placate the mood amongst angry Tory backbenchers, who were dragooned into going along with Downing Street’s murky scheme.
For some, the torrent of scandals will bring back grim memories of the chaotic last years of the John Major government, which paved the way for the Tories’ electoral defeat in 1997.
But whilst the word most often used in recent days has been ‘sleaze’, a more accurate choice would be ‘corruption’. This is what lies at the heart of the whole rotten system – and the Patterson case is just the latest example.
From ‘cash for curtains’; to peerages for donations (now back in the news again); to MPs’ expenses; to COVID contracts for Conservative cronies; to David Cameron and the Greensill lobbying affair; to the revolving door: the stench emanating from the Tory Party – and the entire political establishment – grows stronger by the day.
Much can be learnt from examining what went down last week. It is a saga of hubris and stupidity in equal measure, backed by sheer greed.
Owen Paterson – an unremarkable right-wing Tory MP, one of the Brexit Ultras – had been under investigation by the Standards Commissioner for blatantly using his position to lobby on behalf of firms that he was being paid by.
This included private medical company Randox, who employed Paterson as a consultant at a rate of £500 per hour, and who were awarded a £133 million COVID-testing contract.
The evidence for this corruption was overwhelming, involving numerous approaches to various Whitehall agencies and other government bodies. It was “an egregious case of paid advocacy”, according to investigators on the House of Commons Committee on Standards.
When the committee’s report was finally issued, it was clear that Paterson was going to face a suspension, and possibly a recall ballot, which would have meant a by-election.
The trouble was that Paterson denied any wrongdoing. Instead, he began organising amongst his various pals at Westminster to save his job.
The plan – concocted along with Jacob Rees-Mogg and others – was to get Andrea Leadsom to be the patsy: moving a motion in the House of Commons to pause any action against Paterson, and instead calling for an overhaul of the whole watchdog system.
The intended endgame was to be the creation of a new Tory-dominated body on parliamentary standards; one that would be far more accommodating to the Conservatives than the current arrangements.
Interestingly, a quarter of the MPs who signed the Leadsom amendment had, according to The Economist, “previously been found in breach of parliamentary standards.”
The Ultras were up for it, as was the Daily Telegraph. All that was left was to secure the support of Number 10.
After initially showing no interest, Johnson was suddenly 100% behind the plan. Many have rightly speculated that the PM saw an opportunity to get the Commissioner off his back.
Johnson’s dubious attitude towards party donations and financial gifts – including his recent redecoration efforts – has attracted the interest of the Commissioner's office. So the Tory leader seized the chance both to save Paterson and help himself.
As last Wednesday’s vote approached, Paterson and the rest were hard at work, bending the ears of as many Tory MPs as they could, in order to cajole them into supporting the amendment.
The whip was imposed; open threats were made; and, despite considerable verbal moaning, they all marched through the lobby. Nevertheless, despite all this pressure, Downing Street could only secure a majority of 18 for their shameful amendment.
With the vote won, Paterson was jubilant. Arrogantly strolling around Westminster, the mask of grief over the suicide of his wife now abandoned, the rescued MP was even giving self-serving interviews to the Tory press.
Ministers started to spread the word that the Standards Committee and the Commissioner herself were both ‘finished’ and must go without delay.
No doubt Paterson, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the rest slept peacefully, believing that the days of having to adhere to even mild restrictions regarding their money-making were now behind them.
But the response the next morning told a different story. MPs woke to furious reactions from their constituents. One Tory MP had his office vandalised.
The media – with the obvious exception of loyalists such as the Daily Telegraph – were hardly less forgiving. Even the likes of the Daily Mail led with headlines about the return of sleaze.
Panic mode set in, and by mid-morning a major U-turn had been carried out. The amendment was to be dropped, and the Commissioner's ruling implemented. Paterson was thrown under the proverbial bus, left with no alternative but to quit.
Tory ministers, who a few hours earlier had been all gung-ho, were now trying to play it all down as a ‘storm in a teacup’. But the damage had been done.
By the weekend, Tory grandees, including the likes of John Major, were lining up to stick the knife in. Many were saying that Rees-Mogg and even Johnson himself should ‘consider their positions’.
Things weren’t helped by further revelations over the Prime Minister’s spending, as well as a report that again linked Tory Party donations to offers of seats in the House of Lords. Incredibly, it was uncovered that Paterson himself may yet be given a seat in the Lords.
The stink of corruption will not be easily washed away. People will connect this fiasco to all the other recent scandals, affairs, and incidents – and from there to the general failings of this criminal government.
This isn’t just about Tory sleaze, however. Look at any capitalist country, and you will see identical stories of dodgy dealings and corruption.
The Pandora Papers, for example, showed just how much those in power are pocketing behind the scenes. And even when these crooks are caught, they are mostly let off with a little more than a slap on the wrist.
In any case, this is not a case of a ‘few bad apples’. What we are seeing here are the symptoms of a sick system as it decays and rots; a rigged system that is setup precisely to enable the super-rich to line their pockets at our expense. As such, simple reforms will not cut it.
The aim of people like Paterson – and the profiteering cronies who he represents – is to make money. If being an MP helps, then so be it. This is the ‘morality’ of capitalism. Only the overthrow of this whole corrupt system can clean out this cesspit of decay.