Sleaze is Back: What does it mean for the future?

Image by Jamie Gray is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The last week has been a blur. After miring itself in a highly contentious sleaze scandal involving Conservative MP Owen Paterson, the government hastily backtracked in what must have been one of the fastest U-turns in political history. The aftermath has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many Tory voters and caused Boris Johnson’s poll lead to evaporate. But how did we get here, and what does it mean for the future of British democracy?

Rumours about Paterson’s financial dealings have been in the press for at least two years, ever since it emerged he had repeatedly lobbied ministers on behalf of two companies - the clinical diagnostics firm Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods - that paid him more than £100,000 a year. Randox won a £133 million government coronavirus testing contract just days before officials confirmed it did not possess the required commitment. Some say this was related to Paterson’s advocacy and if so this would be a serious breach of the rules governing MPs.

A cross-party group of MPs found Paterson guilty of “egregious” breaches of parliamentary lobbying rules in October. In addition to this, Paterson was found to have used his House of Commons office 16 times for meetings relating to private business interests - meetings that he failed to declare. The committee recommended that he be suspended for 30 days, something that meant Paterson could have faced a by-election if enough of his constituents had demanded it.  Although an uncommon event in the history of Parliament, MPs were under the impression that Paterson would follow due process and potentially return to his position within a matter of weeks.

In normal circumstances, MPs who are suspected of misconduct are investigated by the Committee for  Standards in Public Life, which is made up of MPs from all the parties in the House of Commons. The committee was set up in the 1990s by John Major’s government whilst it was embroiled in a similar sleaze-related scandal. The committee then report back to Parliament, recommending whether or not they suspect the MP in question has broken the rules governing them.

However, events took a very different turn. Conservative MPs loyal to Paterson constructed a plot to get him off the hook by changing the process by which MPs were investigated for potential breaches of the rules. This was called out by opposition figures such as Sir Keir Starmer as corruption. The government narrowly won a vote in the House of Commons on the proposed changes, albeit with a number of notable Tory rebellions. Following this, opposition MPs refused to sit on any new ‘ethics committee’ that the Conservatives wanted to introduce as a replacement for the current system.

This uproar, combined with a strong public backlash on social media, forced the government to reverse its decision in less than 24 hours. In a remarkable turn of events, House leader Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that the government would only make any changes with “cross-party support” and therefore would not press ahead with their original plans. This meant the judgement against Paterson remained valid. Paterson resigned as an MP later that day, pre-empting any further political damage that the scandal could cause. Arguably, he could have avoided this inglorious fate if he had accepted the original judgement in the first place.

The Paterson affair has undoubtedly inflicted harm on the reputation of the government. Rumours of sleaze had surfaced in the past regarding Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party he leads, although events of the past week have cut through much more than other stories. Real anger was aroused that MPs were trying to rig the rules in their favour. This translated into the collapse of a once rock-solid Tory poll lead, with Labour now slightly in the ascendancy. In addition, a recent poll has placed Keir Starmer higher than Boris Johnson in the public’s preference for Prime Minister. Whilst this is a significant development, it could be said that this is more Johnson’s loss rather than Starmer’s gain. The opposition party is still yet to offer a compelling alternative that voters can coalesce around.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the narrative appears to be slipping from the government’s control, and a vacuum is opening up that Labour could potentially fill if they are clever about it. The opposition party recently proposed a complete ban on second jobs for MPs - something which Johnson has expressed support for, albeit with different wording to the Labour plan. In a recent appearance before the Liaison Committee, Johnson has admitted to making a “mistake” in trying to link the Paterson case with a desire to give MPs a right of appeal when they are accused of wrongdoing.

Be in no doubt, the government has come across badly during this whole debacle and definitely could have handled the case better. They have allowed a minor Westminster village story of one MP abusing the system to snowball into a full-blown corruption furore. They have sacrificed a healthy poll lead in the process and been put on the back foot for the first time since they came to power in December 2019. Not even COVID did as much damage, perhaps because the pandemic was uncharted political water and many people gave the government the benefit of the doubt when accusations of corruption came up from the opposition. Accusations of Tory sleaze are a long trope of Westminster politics and the public are well-versed in the lines of attack and defense from both sides. This is familiar ground.

Last May I wrote an article in The Meridian theorising that sleaze could topple Boris Johnson’s government, if Labour got their strategy right. The events of the last week show just how damaging an issue can be for the reputation of any government, and Johnson should look to nip any future scandals in the bud, in a much better way than he managed in regards to Owen Paterson. Only time will tell.