Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected pressure to appear before British lawmakers debating the standards system Monday, despite days of sleaze and cronyism claims against his government intensifying with new revelations.
MPs are set to hold an emergency debate amid calls for an independent inquiry into the mounting allegations of apparent corruption and inappropriate conduct within the Conservative party and government.
It follows outrage at efforts last week to overhaul parliament’s internal disciplinary process which would have prevented the 30-day suspension of a Tory MP found to have committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.
Although Johnson abandoned the unprecedented move within 24 hours — prompting the lawmaker, Owen Paterson, to resign from parliament — it threw the spotlight on a raft of allegations around MPs’ behaviour.
It also prompted an extraordinary broadside from former Conservative prime minister John Major, who called the episode “shameful” and “had the effect of trashing the reputation of parliament”.
Despite the growing crisis, Johnson was in northeast England Monday to see hospital staff receive Covid-19 boosters and flu jabs, in what he called “a longstanding engagement”.
His spokesman noted he would make the roughly 600-mile (965-kilometre) round-trip by train — days after being heavily criticised for flying by private jet from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to attend a private London dinner with former colleagues at the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
The spokesman said Steve Barclay, a minister with direct responsibility over standards in public life, would represent the government in parliament and was “the right person to take this forward”.
“What we do need to do is look also at the process, and that is what we were trying to do last week,” Johnson said during a brief media appearance at the hospital, insisting he would now focus on a cross-party approach to reforms.
But Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, accused Johnson of “running scared”, after earlier calling for further disclosures of Paterson’s correspondence with ministers over Covid contracts.
“Boris Johnson doesn’t have the decency to defend or apologise for his actions,” he tweeted. “His concern, as always, is self-preservation, not the national interest.”
– ‘Conflicts of interest’ –
The furore around MPs’ conduct heightened over the weekend with a report the Conservatives have been “systematically” awarding seats in the unelected House of Lords, parliament’s upper chamber which scrutinises legislation, to its high-value donors.
An investigation by The Sunday Times and Open Democracy found almost all of the party’s 16 different treasurers over the past two decades were offered seats after increasing their donations to more than £3 million ($4.1 million, 3.5 million euros).
It follows other claims of government wrongdoing over the awarding of coronavirus contracts and multiple aspects of Johnson’s own conduct, as well as renewed focus on lawmakers being able to have high-paying second jobs.
Paterson himself was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 a year.
“There are definitely conflicts of interest that need to be considered,” Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain, a former policewoman who applied for Monday’s urgent debate, told BBC radio.
“We really do need to look at things and that’s what I hope the debate does this afternoon.”
Her party called Johnson’s absence Monday a “shocking failure of leadership”.
It has demanded a public inquiry into the sleaze and corruption allegations, which would have the power to summon witnesses and take evidence under oath.
Meanwhile reports suggested Lindsay Hoyle, House of Commons speaker — a politically impartial role helping to manage parliamentary proceedings — was poised to play a role in forging cross-party consensus on reforming the standards system.
He was set to address lawmakers at the outset of the debate.