08 November 2021

Boris Johnson urged to apologise by senior Tory amid sleaze row

08 November 2021

Boris Johnson has been urged by a senior Tory MP to apologise for his handling of the sleaze row that has engulfed his party in the wake of Owen Paterson being reprimanded.

With backbench Conservatives still smarting after the Government performed a standards reform U-turn last week, former chief whip Mark Harper said the Prime Minister should say sorry to both the public and MPs.

It comes after Tory MPs were ordered on Wednesday to vote for a new committee to consider an altered system of appeals after former environment secretary Mr Paterson was sanctioned, only for ministers to backtrack after the opposition parties refused to co-operate.

At the start of a three-hour emergency Commons debate following the row over the treatment of Mr Paterson, Mr Harper said backbenchers deserved “decisions that are well thought through and soundly based”.

He said: “If on occasion, as on this occasion… if the team captain gets it wrong, then I think he should come and apologise to the public and to this House, that’s the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership.”

Before the debate, Mr Johnson refused to apologise when asked repeatedly by broadcasters during a visit to Northumberland on Monday whether he would do so, arguing that there were “long-standing concerns amongst MPs” about the way standards probes were handled.

Several Tories from the 2019 intake joined in speaking out about the sleaze row during the Commons debate, with one MP admitting they had endured a “miserable time” since last week’s vote.

Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme who rebelled to oppose the amendment on Wednesday, said many of his colleagues who were elected during Mr Johnson’s landslide victory “wished they had chosen to vote differently and are beating themselves up”.

He told MPs: “The reality is that my friends should not have been put in such an invidious position.”

Owen Paterson (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

In the bitter aftermath of the row, Mr Paterson announced he was quitting as an MP after 24 years, blaming the “cruel world of politics”.

It followed a recommendation by the Commons Standards Committee that he should be suspended from Parliament for six weeks after committing an “egregious” breach of the centuries-old ban on paid lobbying by MPs.

Mr Paterson had hoped to challenge the finding through a new appeals system but there was anger among MPs on all sides of the House at the way ministers had sought to conflate his case with wider reform of the system.

Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper called for the Prime Minister to apologise over his handling of the sleaze row (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor) (PA Media)

Monday’s debate opened with Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle imploring MPs to “sort out the mess we’re in”.

He said any review of the process for MPs to appeal against rulings made against them had to to be done on a cross-party basis.

Sir Lindsay warned MPs against criticising the Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who conducted the inquiry into Mr Paterson’s conduct and was unable to defend herself.

He also urged MPs on all sides to “tone down the political sniping”.

As well as facing calls to apologise, the Prime Minister came under fire for choosing to stay away from the Commons, leaving the Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay to open for the Government.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister was unable to get back to Westminster in time following a long-planned visit to an NHS hospital trust in Northumberland.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Tory leader was “running scared” having given “the green light to corruption” by arguing that rules to stop vested interests did not apply to his friends.

No 10 said Boris Johnson was unable to get back in time after visiting Hexham General Hospital (Peter Summers/PA) (PA Wire)

“When required to lead, he has chosen to hide. His concern, as always, is self-preservation, not the national interest,” he said.

Mr Barclay said that while there were concerns which required attention, it had been a “mistake” for ministers to proceed in the way they did last week.

“I’d like, first and foremost, to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week,” he said.

“We recognise there are concerns across the House over the standards system and also the process by which possible breaches of the code of conduct are investigated.

“Yet whilst sincerely held concerns clearly warrant further attention, the manner in which the Government approached last week’s debate conflated them with the response to an individual case.”

Mr Harper, during his Commons contribution, also said it would be a “mistake” to offer Mr Paterson a peerage, following speculation in the press over the weekend that the former North Shropshire MP could be given a place in the House of Lords.

It comes after SNP Commons leader Pete Wishart said he had asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate peerage appointments to the Lords by the Conservative Party.

Mr Wishart wants a probe to focus on an Open Democracy and Sunday Times investigation which, among other claims, found nine of the party’s former treasures have been elevated to the upper chamber since the Tories returned to power in 2010.

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