Sleazopedia: the anatomy of the Tories’ week from hell

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 (ES)
(ES)

It was the type of event where Boris Johnson was completely at ease. In a wood-panelled private room in the men-only Garrick Club, the Prime Minister held court as he discussed past glories with his old colleagues from The Daily Telegraph, over port and stilton.

But a week later, Johnson is bruised; “a cauldron of discontent” is brewing in his party, with a pervasive sense that some serious red lines have been crossed and a continually emerging slew of sleaze that goes to the centre of government.

It started last week with the Owen Paterson affair, when Tories were whipped to vote to block the Team Brexit MP’s suspension, despite the standards committee finding him guilty of what they called an “egregious breach of lobbying rules”. Paterson was working for companies that paid him more than £100,000. The Government eventually did a U-turn and Paterson resigned but MPs are still smarting from the way it was mishandled.

“A lot of people are really angry,” said one Conservative MP, who added that there was particular frustration among some of the new intake of Tories elected for the first time at the 2019 General Election. They feel they have been treated like collateral damage. “A lot of them are asking, ‘Why were we made to do this?’” The Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary who briefly chaired the Standards and Privileges Committee, accused Johnson of carelessness and being “indifferent” to the rules on standards: “These things have happened before but the problem for the Government is the more they happen the more they become a serious public issue. On top of that we have the particular personality of the Prime Minister, who has a reputation that long precedes his arrival in 10 Downing Street. These incidents appear to give substance to many of the criticisms that have been made of his ability to do the job properly.”

“Boris has always had a less than scrupulous approach to money and he doesn’t judge others on their financial affairs,” says one insider. “One of his redeeming qualities is that he is loyal but with a lack of close advisors who can warn him when he is going wrong, he has made a mistake in sticking up for things that are plainly wrong. He has a large majority so periodically he is tempted to just do what he likes, but that has backfired.”

The spotlight is now being shone on other parliamentarians — from who gets peerages to MPs’ lucrative second jobs, including Sir Geoffrey Cox earning more than £800,000 for advising the British Virgin Islands. Cox is alleged to have used his MP’s office while representing the BVI but has denied breaking the rules and says he will cooperate with any investigation. He says the Attorney General’s office advised there was no conflict of interest around his work in the BVI and he consulted the chief whip about voting by proxy from there. But this week’s revelations mean some Tories fear they face a fatal spiral of sleaze; with unpleasant echoes of the nineties, when the party was synonymous with scandal.

Johnson is exposed personally. There are outstanding questions over his holidays and the alleged £58,000 donation from Tory peer Lord Brownlow to cover his and Carrie’s flat renovation, jettisoning the “John Lewis nightmare” at Downing Street in favour of £840-a-roll gold wallpaper.. A Number 10 spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has been clear that he expects all MPs to follow the rules and that those who break them must be investigated and punished.”

 (PA)
(PA)

Owen Paterson

Before the lobbying investigation, Paterson was popular. “Owen was a good man to have on your side,” says a former MP. “He is enthusiastic and likeable.” MPs feel for him after his wife Rose committed suicide in June last year.

However, who his friends are is relevant. Paterson is part of a hard core of Brexit supporters, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith, and one insider says that “Boris Johnson is acutely aware that without them he would not be Prime Minister. He also knows that that group can seem menacing and make the life of a leader difficult when they are all united. It is hard to stand up to them.”

Charles Moore, who was Boris’s boss from 1995 until 1999 at The Daily Telegraph and was made a peer last year, is also close to Paterson. They met at Cambridge in the 1970s and their families are friends, spending weekends together at their respective country homes . Moore wrote an article for the Telegraph arguing that Paterson had been unfairly hounded by the parliamentary commissioner Kathryn Stone. He was also at the Garrick dinner. One source said that others in attendance included David Howell (an ex-Telegraph leader writer who is also George Osborne’s ex-wife Frances’s father) and Daily Mail columnist Tom Utley, who is friends with Carrie Johnson’s father Matthew, the co-founder of The Independent newspaper.

“Boris has few friends,” says a former Tory advisor. “But he is in awe of Moore. He nearly made him head of the BBC.” Another insider says: “Boris has a reputation for wanting to please people.”

There is a feeling in the Tory old guard, who still feel hung out to dry by the expenses scandal, that Stone s is out to get them, which is another possible motive for the brazen whipping. Paterson’s allies could have played on any feelings of vulnerability Johnson has over his own behaviour to convince him there was a witch hunt going on. The flaw though is that Johnson has never been a details man – a source close to him says, “Why should he be? He has more important things to do” – so he would not have thought about what Paterson actually did and the repercussions of backing him. “It is astonishing though, that no one around him did or warned him,” says a former MP. “I hate to say it because I am not an admirer but if Dominic Cummings were still around, he would probably have looked at the details and he had the strength of character to stick up to Johnson.” Another adds that if Paterson’s supporters were really good friends, they would have known that in the long run it would have been better to let him resign.

Another figure embroiled in the saga is Sir Bernard Jenkin, the son of Patrick Jenkin, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet. He and his wife Anne are a Tory power couple. Anne was friends with Rose Paterson and before she died she emailed Anne about Owen’s lobbying. Sir Bernard should have upheld standards in the Paterson vote, as chair of the Commons Liaison Committee, but instead he posted an article in defence of changes to the Standards Committee that would have saved Paterson on multiple WhatsApp groups and now faces calls to resign. He has said: “No one has raised any concerns with me. I always try to act in the best interests of the committee.”

Covid contracts

Ex-health minister Lord Bethell is the latest person to come under fire here. He is a hereditary peer who advised Matt Hancock on his leadership campaign, and a former manager of the Ministry of Sound who goes for bracing morning swims in the Serpentine all year round.

The issue is around some missing messages. Bethell was involved in overseeing the awarding of £85 million Covid contracts but said the messages about them had gone missing from his WhatsApp and denies any wrongdoing. He has also been linked to the Paterson lobbying with the Department of Health refusing to release details of a phone call between the former Tory MP and Lord Bethell. Campaigners are launching a judicial review into the Government’s use of messages that can disappear.

“It is very damaging,” says Jolyon Maugham QC, founder of the Good Law Project who has launched a series of cases against the Government’s Covid contracts and lobbying. “What we are seeing in the UK is the collapse of the British constitutional order. There was the theory of good chaps of government, that there will always be good chaps who prevent bad things from happening. This government has left us defenseless against bad chaps and it is difficult to see a way back because the Government are not shoring things up but shifting the goal posts and doubling down, and all we can do is point out what they are getting wrong.”

The House of Lords

As well as fighting off allegations about his MPs’ conduct in the House of Commons, Johnson has also been facing damaging claims that the Conservatives have been abusing the honours system by systematically rewarding long term donors and treasurers to the party with peerages.

An investigation by The Sunday Times and Open Democracy alleged that wealthy backers of the party appeared to be guaranteed a peerage if they take on the role of treasurer and increase their personal donations to more than £3m. The paper alleged that all but one of the 16 Conservative treasurers over the last two decades had donated more than £3m to the party and then been offered a seat in the House of Lords. The peers named in the reports included Lord Cruddas, who took his seat after Johnson rejected the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission not to grant him a peerage.

Lord Brownlow, already caught up in the storm over the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment, was also alleged to have been rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords after his donations to the Tories topped £3m. Although there is no suggestion any of those donors named in the reports were promised a peerage or were directed or offered to pay any particular sum to secure an honour, the reports have added to the swirl of questions about sleaze engulfing the Government. George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, rejected the allegations at the weekend, saying: “They are philanthropists who give huge amounts to charity, who have been very successful in business and therefore on those grounds ought to be considered for the Lords.”

Carrie and Boris Johnson on their wedding day (PA Media)
Carrie and Boris Johnson on their wedding day (PA Media)

The holidays

Back in 2019, Johnson and Carrie went to Mustique on a £15,000 winter break. It turned out that it was paid for by Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross but the MPs’ watchdog criticised Johnson for the “ad hoc” arrangements and “regrettable” lack of full clarity. A friend says that Johnson mixed up exchange rates, which confused matters and there was no “willful negligence”. Then, in October, at the height of the energy crisis, Johnson, Carrie and their son stayed at their friend Zac Goldsmith’s family’s Marbella villa (available to rent for £25,000 a week). The holiday was declared in the register of ministerial interests, given that Goldsmith is a Lord.

But despite coming under pressure from Labour, Johnson has so far not declared the trip in the separate MPs register of interests, meaning he doesn’t have to declare its monetary value. Downing Street says it doesn’t need to be in the register because it is unconnected with parliamentary or political activities. One ex-MP says: “Zac is one of the richest people in the country, he doesn’t need to buy influence.” There is, however, a Brexit connection. Goldsmith’s half-brother Robin Birley, who owns Mayfair member’s club 5 Hertford Street, was a Vote Leave donor and gave Johnson’s leadership campaign £20,000. Goldsmith’s father James was also an early campaigner for leaving the EU, before his death in 1997. The Number 10 spokesperson said: “This has been transparently declared by the Prime Minister.”

The flat

Johnson may have hoped that wallpapergate had died down since news of the sprucing up of Downing Street broke in April. As the Prime Minister sees it, the home front is his wife’s domain. A friend says: “Boris had no interest in refurb, he left it to Carrie who spent too much.”

Lord Brownlow is said to have helped cover some of the costs. Brownlow is a longstanding Tory donor who received his peerage from Theresa May. He likes to “make a difference to people’s lives”. Like Carrie, he likes the Pet Shop Boys but his musical tastes are eclectic, he is also a Royal Albert Hall trustee.

A review found the PM acted “unwisely” by not being more “rigorous” in finding out who had funded work on the flat but that he didn’t breach the ministerial code. But a separate investigation by the Electoral Commission is looking into whether the Tory Party received a donation from a peer to pay for the refurbishment. And Stone may open an inquiry into whether the PM should have declared any benefit received in relation to the refurbishment. A Number 10 spokesperson says: “It was clearly a Ministerial matter, as the Prime Minister only occupies it by virtue of his Ministerial office and the Commons rulebook is very clear that such declarations do not need to be double declared.” Still, Labour is keeping up the pressure, calling for further investigation.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy says: “This is the latest sorry episode in a long line of events where the Prime Minister has tried to wriggle out of the rules that apply to the rest of us. From defending Dominic Cummings when he broke lockdown rules, trying to avoid self isolation last summer when he came into close contact with Sajid Javid, or dragging his feet over sacking Matt Hancock when he broke lockdown rules while having an affair with an aide - Boris Johnson has presided over a culture that is rotten to the core. It makes a mockery of the British people, undermines democracy and has left Britain isolated in the world.” In the current climate, the developments of this week are a thorn in Johnson’s side.

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