James Forsyth

Boris Johnson will struggle to contain this sleaze row

Boris Johnson will struggle to contain this sleaze row
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A week ago today, Tory MPs were getting increasingly nervous about Downing Street’s plan to stay the guilty verdict against Owen Paterson. Despite warnings from various senior MPs, the government pressed on – and the result has been a firestorm about second jobs, with Geoffrey Cox now facing Labour calls for an inquiry into his conduct.

It is hard to see how Boris Johnson gets off the hook he has caught himself on. If he tries to resolve this scandal with a set of strict new curbs on outside interests he will infuriate a considerable number of his own MPs. Interestingly, some of the MPs with the most extensive outside interests were most persistent in warning the whips about where the government’s plan would lead. But if Boris Johnson doesn’t do anything, there’ll be a drip, drip of these stories which will do damage to the Tories. (I think the most damming in today’s papers is this story about an MP accepting money from the gambling industry.) Revealingly, Andrew Bowie – a Scottish Tory MP with a majority of just 843 – is stepping down as vice-chair of the party. This suggests that MPs are beginning to worry that having to defend this situation publicly is going to harm their electoral prospects.

At the moment, the government appears to be hoping that this story will blow itself out. Yet, we are a week in and this scandal shows no sign of abating. ‘There’s no firebreak you can see and plenty of dry timber’, warns one senior Tory MP. It all makes Johnson’s decision not to attend Monday’s debate look like even more of an error: he missed a chance to show some contrition.