Boris Johnson’s survival instinct has kicked in – but why did he think the Owen Paterson vote was a good idea?

·5-min read

Boris Johnson realised at an early stage that he had made a bad decision to try to overturn the verdict of an independent standards committee. Unlike last year, when he stood by Dominic Cummings for months after his conviction in the court of public opinion for lockdown rules hypocrisy, this morning’s U-turn tries to limit the damage.

The reversal means that the prime minister gets the second-worst of three worlds. He shouldn’t have tried to block the suspension of Owen Paterson, the Tory former cabinet minister, in the first place, but the worst outcome for Johnson and the Tory party would have been to have persisted with a partisan stitch-up.

Leaving aside the damage to Johnson’s reputation among those voters who don’t already have a negative view of him, trying to plough ahead with the attempt to refer Paterson’s case to a committee of Tory MPs would have become impossible. The government had a majority of only 18 in yesterday’s vote, and many of the Tory MPs who were bullied into voting the wrong way were unhappy about it.

At some point between that vote and this morning, the other half of Boris Johnson’s brain took over. Cummings, his former chief adviser, has written about how there are two Borises: one sulky, careless, uninterested in detail; the other focused, ruthless, and absolutely determined to do whatever is necessary for his political survival.

The second Boris obviously realised that the backlash against the decision by the first Boris was dangerous, and took the evasive action needed. The prime minister does seem to have the ability to hold at least two personalities in his brain. One former MP recently described having seen Johnson approaching: “We saw him coming towards us, head down, muttering to himself as if writing three articles at once in different parts of his head.”

But this still leaves the puzzle of why the first Johnson thought that trying to overrule the findings of the independent standards commissioner, as endorsed by the independent standards committee, would turn out well for him.

Did he think that the voters wouldn’t notice? Did he think they wouldn’t care? He may have thought that the details of the story were complicated, and that the caravan of cross-party outrage would move on. But the essentials of the story are simple; they fit with what most voters think about politicians anyway. The story was bound to be damaging to him – the only question was how damaging it would be.

Several motives have been proposed, one of which I think we can dismiss easily. This is that he felt a personal loyalty to Paterson, his friend and fellow Brexiteer. Everyone feels sorry for Paterson’s personal tragedy – his wife died by suicide last year – but the standards committee took this into account in handing down its punishment, a 30-day suspension, which otherwise might have been more severe. And if Johnson merely felt sorry for Paterson, he could have asked Tory MPs to vote to reduce or cancel his punishment on compassionate grounds.

That was proposed by Julian Lewis, the maverick Tory MP. It would have been quite wrong for the governing party to use its parliamentary majority to set aside the verdict of an independent process, but it would have seemed less self-serving than the plan for which the prime minister actually asked Tory MPs to vote. He whipped them to support Andrea Leadsom’s proposal, which was to refer Paterson’s case to a committee of MPs with a Tory majority. This committee would also consider changing the standards system to add a further layer, allowing for an appeal tribunal.

This morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government’s parliamentary business manager, announced the U-turn: the plan to add a further layer of appeal will now be separated from Paterson’s case. Rees-Mogg accepted that changing the standards system would require cross-party consent – which means it would take months, if not years – and that Paterson’s fate would be decided by a separate vote in the Commons next week.

By the afternoon, Paterson pre-empted that decision by resigning as an MP, saying that the last two years had been an “indescribable nightmare” for him and his family, and that he would “remain a public servant but outside the cruel world of politics”.

It would seem that the prime minister’s attempt to defend Paterson by ordering Tory MPs to vote against his punishment backfired, ending what was left of his career prematurely.

So why did yesterday’s Johnson think yesterday’s vote was a good idea in the first place? The most plausible explanation, I think, is that he resented Kathryn Stone, the standards commissioner, for her investigation of his holiday in Mustique after the election in 2019. She originally found that he had broken the rules, because he appeared not to know who had paid for it. This finding was overturned by the standards committee – proving its independence – when David Ross, the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, supplied further information that confirmed he had indirectly paid for the holiday villa.

Johnson seems to have allowed his grudge against Stone to have overridden the ruthless political part of his brain. In this, he was egged on by a number of other Tory MPs who have also found themselves on the wrong side of standards rulings. But it turns out that the majority of Tory MPs are aligned with the ruthless political Boris in recognising that “one rule for Tory MPs and another rule for the rest of us” is a disaster for the prime minister and his party.

As with Johnson’s hastily reversed decision to try to avoid the rules on Covid-19 isolation in July, the damage has been done, but far worse damage has now been averted.

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