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- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
Boris Johnson will swerve today’s emergency debate on MPs’ sleaze due to a “long-standing” visit to the north-east of England.
The prime minister went on a hospital visit to Northumberland, skipping the highly anticipated debate over the saga engulfing the government.
During a clip with broadcasters in Hexham he refused to apologise to his party and the public over the Owen Paterson lobbying saga.
He said: “There’s a debate today, unfortunately I can’t be there because I had a long-standing engagement up here.”
Johnson claimed opposition parties wanted to focus on Paterson who had “suffered a serious personal tragedy” and had now resigned.
“I don’t think there’s much more to be said about that particular case, I really don’t, but what we do need to do is look also at the process, and that is what we were trying to do last week,” he added.
Instead, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay will represent the government in today’s debate.
The prime minister’s official spokesman insisted Barclay was the right person to appear at the debate because of his cross-government role.
He said Johnson’s visit to Northumberland was a “long-standing plan for him to go up there and see the importance of NHS staff getting their boosters”.
The spokesman insisted the visit was planned before the standards debate was scheduled and because he is travelling by train - he would not arrive back in Westminster in time for the debate.
Asked why he could not fly back to London as he did from the Cop26 summit last week, the spokesman said: “I gave you the reason for that flight before.”
Boris Johnson is running scared from today's anti-sleaze debate in Parliament. pic.twitter.com/b9sthYPcwQ
— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) November 8, 2021
However, the Labour Party sought to capitalise on the PM’s absence by launching social media graphics and accusing him of “running scared”.
It came just a few hours after a cabinet minister suggested Johnson did not need to attend the debate and could follow proceedings on a TV in his office.
International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said this morning that Johnson should be focusing on “important” prime ministerial matters.
It follows an extraordinary week in the House of Commons in which the government faced accusations of a return to “1990s sleaze culture”.
Last Thursday, Johnson was forced to u-turn over a controversial plan to prevent Tory MP Owen Paterson facing a 30-day commons suspension for a serious breach of lobbying rules. The row resulted in Paterson quitting as an MP.
The government is set to face another tough few days with further allegations of sleaze emerging in the Sunday papers - including a “cash for honours” row.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said that a no-show by the prime minister in Monday’s debate would demonstrate he was “either too arrogant or too cowardly to take responsibility” for the Paterson lobbying scandal.
All eyes will be on commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle who is expected to make a significant intervention, including a review of the standards process and whether MPs should be allowed second jobs.
Starmer will lead Labour’s response to the debate, which is not expected to start until around 4.30pm.
A spokesperson for Hoyle confirmed he will make a statement ahead of the debate.
Hoyle said: “Last week did not show our democracy in the best light.
“I hope today’s debate will give members the chance to express their views and help us move forward.
“I also hope MPs will consider their language to get the right message across.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.