Boris Johnson struggles to contain fallout from UK lobbying scandal

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Mr Boris Johnson is struggling to repress the UK backlash over his defence of a ruling party lawmaker who broke lobbying rules, as opposition leader Keir Starmer openly accused his government of being corrupt.

The British prime minister on Monday (Nov 8) refused to apologise for his decision last week to tear up parliamentary rules on standards last week rather than accept the suspension of Mr Owen Paterson, a Conservative MP found guilty of paid advocacy.

Mr Johnson then missed an emergency debate in the House of Commons, raising anger among opponents who are benefiting in the polls from the fallout.

“When the prime minister gives the green light to corruption he corrodes trust,” Mr Starmer told the Commons during the debate. “When he says that the rules to stop vested interests don’t apply to his friends, he corrodes trust.”

Mr Johnson was ultimately forced to perform a U-turn last week in the face of widespread condemnation – including from fellow Tories – over the move to protect his friend Mr Paterson, a former Conservative minister.

The incident has damaged the prime minister within his own party – 13 Tory lawmakers rebelled in the vote brought forward by the government to let Mr Paterson avoid censure, and dozens of others abstained against party orders. Mr Paterson himself resigned as an MP following Mr Johnson’s climbdown.

It has also reignited allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals.

That carries personal risk for Mr Johnson, who has frequently become embroiled in various standards inquiries into his own behaviour, ranging from luxury holidays to the refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment.

There’s also growing evidence the scandal is cutting through with voters, as Mr Johnson’s approval rating slumped to a record low in an Opinium poll for the Observer newspaper. The Tories’ lead over Labour fell to just a single percentage point.

Mr Johnson struck a defiant tone during a trip to Hexham, north-east England, about 480km from London, to urge people to get their Covid-19 vaccine boosters. “I don’t think there’s much more to be said about that particular case, I really don’t,” he told reporters.

That left Cabinet minister Steve Barclay to speak for the government in Parliament, where he expressed his “regret, and that of my ministerial colleagues, over the mistake made last week.”

Mr Barclay reiterated the government’s position that it was seeking a cross-party approach to standards in Parliament and to ensure a right of appeal for accused MPs. The mistake, he said, was for the issue to become tied up with Mr Paterson’s case.

But Mr Starmer said it was neither a “tactical mistake” nor an “innocent misjudgment swiftly corrected by a U-turn,” but rather Mr Johnson’s “way of doing business, a pattern of behaviour” amounting to “government corruption.”

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