Being robust on rule-breaking is a bit rich coming from Boris Johnson

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‘Since entering Downing Street his cavalier attitude has persisted – and his supporters love him for it’  (REUTERS)
‘Since entering Downing Street his cavalier attitude has persisted – and his supporters love him for it’ (REUTERS)

For a man who’s apparently spent a lifetime bending the rules it took some chutzpah to say – as Boris Johnson did last night – that “those who break the rules must be investigated and should be punished”.

His comments came exactly a week after he sparked a Conservative revolt by pausing punishment for his friend Owen Paterson, who – according to the standards committee – broke the rules on lobbying.

From his school days, the prime minister has always given the impression that he doesn’t like to do what he’s told. His classics teacher at Eton College, Martin Hammond, once complained to his father about his “gross failure of responsibility” and concluded: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

It was a belief he carried into his professional life – where he was sacked from a newspaper over allegations of making up a quote – and then into politics, where he had to leave the Conservative front bench after misleading his boss about an extra-marital affair.

Since entering Downing Street his cavalier attitude has persisted – and his supporters love him for it.

Leave aside questions over the funding of the Downing Street wallpaper (he was cleared of breaching the ministerial code) and pressure on him to come clean about the cost of his latest luxury holiday.

The prime minister was also accused of looking for ways to dodge Covid quarantine restrictions when he was pinged in the summer and while others diligently did as they were instructed over Christmas, it’s alleged he and his wife spent the day with their son’s godmother.

In all cases, No 10 denies any wrongdoing (as they did when his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings decided to drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight during lockdown).

Perhaps the relentless focus on protocol misses the point of a freedom-loving prime minister who, like many of his fellow Britons, enjoys plotting his own course.

Certainly, as he strove to deliver Brexit, it served Johnson well to cast himself as the man who took a wrecking ball to the petty regulations drawn up by faceless EU bureaucrats, even if that meant being prepared to break international law – something the European Commission says he’s flirted with not once, but twice.

But while people who voted for him and his fellow revolutionaries over Brexit might have been prepared to see him unravel the rules on Europe, the lobbying furore is quite another matter. It’s a fair assumption many voters wanted MPs to bring back £350m for the NHS – not line their own pockets with second jobs.

So it’s a measure of how rattled Downing Street is that although the prime minister declined repeated invitations to apologise, he several times issued an extremely robust response to questions about sleaze from journalists at the Cop26 press conference on Wednesday.

His statements could turn out to be a hostage to fortune, given the prime minister’s own conduct is under extensive scrutiny by the opposition.

He must either be certain he hasn’t broken the rules at any point himself or convinced once again the normal rules won’t apply to him.

It’s quite a gamble. And the longer the sleaze scandal rumbles on, the bigger that gamble looks. Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell used to have a rule that if a story made the headlines for eleven days straight, his political paymasters were in trouble.

By my calculations, we’re now on day nine and counting. And the prime minister can’t have been delighted that he had to interrupt hosting a huge international event to insist “the UK is not remotely a corrupt country”.

Then again, Boris Johnson is the politician who doesn’t like to play by the rules. And the public may carry on forgiving him for it.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm

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