Why did Boris Johnson avoid the Commons chamber on Monday? The official reason for the Prime Minister skipping an emergency debate on MPs' standards is that he has a pre-planned visit. The problem for Johnson is that many of his MPs are taking it as another sign that he is missing in action when it comes to the escalating row over Tory sleaze, following the botched attempt to spare former MP Owen Paterson a 30-day suspension.
While opposition MPs had plenty to shout about in that debate – with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the government of 'giving a green light to corruption' – it's the Tory benches where Downing Street has the most to worry about. There was a low turnout among Tory MPs for the debate, but of those who spoke former chief whip Mark Harper made the most critical intervention. He said:
'Politics is a team effort. If the team captain gets their side — from backbenchers to senior ministers — into difficulty when they get something wrong, they should apologise to the House. That’s leadership. We need to see more of it.'
While Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay expressed his regret over what he described as a 'mistake' by the government to back Paterson last week, Johnson showed little contrition in a pool clip, refusing to apologise. As the Tory sleaze row moves to second jobs, the relationship between parts of the parliamentary party and Johnson is about to get worse. Today's papers are filled with stories over MPs' outside earnings. The most eye-catching of which involves Geoffrey Cox. The former attorney general worked in the British Virgin Islands during lockdown, earning £400,000 a year advising the tax haven over Foreign Office corruption charges.
This is the most outlandish of the second jobs, with Labour's Anneliese Dodds writing to Johnson today to ask whether Cox is a 'Caribbean based barrister or a Conservative MP'. But the wider concern among Tory MPs is that the current scrutiny will lead to a big crackdown on outside work, with more than a quarter of Tory MPs thought to have second jobs.
There is discontent that the current situation is down to Johnson's mishandling of the Paterson claims. The fact that deputy prime minister Dominic Raab had to spend the morning round defending Cox over his outside work shows what an uncomfortable position the government is in. One senior Tory argues that the Prime Minister ought to apologise in order to try to bring the matter to a close – though it seems that instead the preferred approach of the Whips' Office is to not give it oxygen and thereby hope it all blows over. As Johnson avoids facing the music, Tory MPs complain they are being left to fend for themselves in a row made worse by No. 10.