Katy Balls

Can the Paterson Tory sleaze row continue to damage Boris?

Can the Paterson Tory sleaze row continue to damage Boris?
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After a bruising week for Boris Johnson over the Owen Paterson lobbying row, the government U-turned on its plan to rewrite MP standards rules and Paterson quit the Commons. Yet the whole saga is far from over: the Prime Minister is likely to spend the next week dealing with the fallout from his botched plan to spare the Tory MP a one-month suspension over a breach of lobbying rules. Although Johnson's environment secretary George Eustice declared on Sunday that the row amounts to a 'storm in a teacup', Tory MPs are furious and raising concerns over the No. 10 operation. To make matters worse, the government is now facing a spate of Tory sleaze stories from peerages for donors to lobbying over Covid contracts. 

Given the Tory poll lead slipped over the weekend, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have an interest in keeping the row going. The two parties are spying an opportunity in the North Shropshire by-election that will be held after Paterson decided to step down. Although on paper this ought to be a fairly simply vote – it's seen as a Tory safe seat, where Paterson won a majority of over 20,000 in the 2019 snap election – Tories aren't thrilled at the prospect. By-elections, after all, can be very unpredictable. 

Opposition parties are keen to use an emergency debate this afternoon on MPs’ standards to embarrass the government further. Keir Starmer will be in the Chamber to lead Labour’s response in the debate, but it is currently unclear whether Johnson will attend – or send someone in his place. While the debate is likely to be dominated by party politics and could quickly descend into grandstanding, some serious changes could be coming up the track. The House of Commons speaker is considering launching a review of the rules governing MPs' behaviour – this could look at second jobs and the potential conflicts of interest.

The other area where the Paterson row has brought renewed interest is the Downing Street flat refurbishment. Part of the problem for Johnson is that his relationship with the Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone means that he has a personal interest in the rules. As well as receiving a telling off from Stone over taking too long to say who paid for his 2019 holiday to Mustique, Johnson could face an investigation into how he refurbishment of the Downing Street flat was funded. While George Eustice claimed in a Sunday media round that the flat redecoration was outside Stone's remit, the rules appear to suggest otherwise. Stone could make a decision on whether to look into it once the Electoral Commission concludes its own investigation. 

It's worth pointing out that, despite all the negative headlines, it's too soon to say what the electoral impact will be. One poll out today gives Labour a narrow lead while polling on friday suggested the Tories remained ahead but only by one point. It could be that the issue peaked last week. But what the events of the past few days have done is whip up a lot of bad will in the parliamentary party. For Johnson, the Paterson row has also brought a lot of difficult questions back to the fore.  

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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