LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest effort to draw a line under an escalating lobbying and sleaze row engulfing his government was thwarted at the last minute in the British Parliament.
The government had hoped the House of Commons would formalise its U-turn on a controversial effort to block the suspension of a ruling Conservative Party politician.
That intervention sparked a severe backlash against Mr Johnson, and the Prime Minister wanted his climbdown to be made official late on Monday (Nov 15).
But moments before that could happen, another Conservative MP shouted “object”, meaning the move could not go ahead. For the government, it means finding a new date – and the risk that the furore over its behaviour is prolonged.
Mr Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the Commons standards committee, said late on Monday there would now be a one-hour debate on the issue on Tuesday – despite the best efforts of government to get it done without facing a debate.
What began as a plan to intervene to rewrite parliamentary rules on standards rather than accept the suspension of a former Tory minister found guilty of paid lobbying quickly morphed into a disaster for Mr Johnson, triggering infighting in his party and undermining his leadership.
He ultimately backtracked, amid a slew of negative headlines about sleaze, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals, in his party.
The government’s motion on Monday would have finally approved the independent watchdog’s guilty verdict on Mr Owen Paterson, a friend of Mr Johnson who resigned as a Tory MP this month after the government’s U-turn.
It would also have rescinded the attempt to overhaul the standards system.
Earlier on Monday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng also apologised to Parliament’s standards commissioner, Ms Kathryn Stone, after telling Sky News this month it would be “difficult” for her to stay in her post.
The latest attempts to move on from the row came after two opinion polls at the weekend showed that Mr Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has edged ahead of the Tories.
Conservative MPs have expressed dismay over the handling of the debacle and told privately of being hung out to dry after controversial votes.
“Of course, I think things could certainly have been handled better, let me put it that way, by me,” Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference late on Sunday. But he dismissed further questions on the issue on Monday.
Labour will seek to pile pressure on the Tories on Wednesday by forcing a vote on whether MPs should be banned from holding paid directorships or consultancies.