As Conservative MPs lined up for a second time in two weeks to vote on sanctions against Owen Patterson for paid lobbying, many were fuming at what they could have avoided if they had simply followed convention and waved through his punishment in the first place.
Paterson has already resigned amid the furore over the Conservative attempt to change the rulebook to suit themselves. But the capital lost over the course of a handful of days is significant – the Tories have fallen behind in the polls and live under a cloud of sleaze and corruption that they had largely escaped even under two years of Boris Johnson’s chaotic and unorthodox leadership.
With MPs leaking disagreeable thoughts to the media and ex-minister David Lidington linking Johnson’s behavior to central European despots in a piece for The New European, how much longer will Conservative footsoldiers toe the line?
The vote on November 3 to shelve recommendations that Paterson be suspended for 30 days for an “egregious” breach of the rules has become an open invitation to dig up other examples of Conservative sleaze. Even government-friendly newspapers have obliged with a stream of revelations that have damaged the government on several measures. Some MPs have reported death threats.
At the weekend, voters gearing up to choose a successor to the popular James Brokenshire, who has died of cancer, told journalists they think Johnson is “waste of space” and “the worst prime minister”. Anonymously, some of his own MPs have been using similar language.
The dramatic conclusion of COP26 and the Liverpool car explosion may have knocked sleaze off the front pages at the start of this week, but it’s bubbling away furiously inside and online.
The Daily Mail, which has been critical from the start of the Paterson debacle, honed in on “ANOTHER poll slump” for the Conservatives, and carried articles about the semi-apology extracted from Boris Johnson, accusations – so far denied — that transport secretary and amateur pilot Grant Shapps lobbied to stop housebuilding on airfields, and alleged mismanagement of donations at the charity that employs Carrie Johnson. The Aspinall Foundation also counts Tory donor Ben Goldsmith as a trustee.
The ever-entertaining Jennifer Arcuri has resurfaced, with the Observer quoting unpublished extracts from her diaries that Johnson promised to use his power as Mayor of London to “win my love” and offered to be “the thrust – the throttle” of her career.
Myriad other allegations include the £3million price tag for Conservative Party treasurers to buy themselves a peerage, as exposed by the Sunday Times. The hubristic former Conservative attorney general Geoffrey Cox’s well-remunerated work for, and from, a tax haven in the Caribbean – which he maintains were all above board – kept alive the second-job debate.
Conservatives have hit back with accusations of Labour MPs’ second-job earnings – including Keir Starmer’s legal work before he became leader – but so far they are considered pale in comparison to some Conservatives’ pay cheques and non-parliamentary workloads.
It doesn’t stop in parliament. The Guardian has found that half of all ministers working under Johnson or Theresa May have moved into positions with companies related to their government work straight after leaving office.
Other potential crises loom over the horizon. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Oliver Dowden had to deny that the government had rigged the ongoing process to appoint a new chair for Ofcom, which is being rerun after purported Johnson favourite and former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was originally deemed unappointable. A petition against a Dacre appointment is gathering pace, while another old problem could still have teeth when the bullying allegations against Priti Patel – dismissed by Johnson – are reviewed by the High Court.
All this is being greeted with distaste by a public overwhelmed by the avalanche of activities that if not illegal are certainly seen as inappropriate, as several new opinion polls have shown. Former journalist-turned MP Martin Bell has said that the situation is worse than in the 1990s, when he stood as an independent anti-corruption candidate at the height of the sleaze dramas that brought down John Major’s Conservative government.
Labour has tabled a motion for Wednesday banning all MPs from having paid directorships and consultancies. It’s far from clear that the motion will pass, but the public is behind it.
How will the weight of all these allegations hit the Johnson government? Angry leaked WhatsApp messages testify to what is starting to look like a schism between the traditional, southern Conservative old guard and the 2019 intake from the so-called Red Wall.
Even so, few are betting against Johnson just yet. There is no sign that the two December by-elections – to replace Brokenshire and Paterson – provide the opposition much opportunity to chip away at the government majority in two safe seats, especially with no united anti-sleaze candidate in the field. Voters’ frustration may be growing, but so far it’s all about the negative.
Mostly anti-Johnson, rather than pro-anything else.