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Boris Johnson completes retreat over Commons ‘sleaze’

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Boris Johnson on Tuesday completed his shambolic retreat over “sleaze” in the House of Commons, as ministers tabled a motion scrapping a proposed Tory-run committee to rewrite the regime on MPs’ behaviour and accepting that former cabinet minister Owen Paterson broke lobbying rules.

MPs are expected to endorse the motion, put forward by leader of the house Jacob Rees-Mogg, when they vote on it next week. But the prime minister is still refusing to apologise for the debacle, which has left Tory MPs fearing a wave of allegations of “sleaze”.

The motion formally reverses Johnson’s pyrrhic victory last week, when he won a Commons vote to change Commons rules and reprieve Paterson. The former minister later resigned as an MP after the prime minister signalled the retreat.

As the media digs for examples of Tory MPs taking well-paid jobs outside Westminster, attention focused on Sir Geoffrey Cox, former attorney-general, who earned almost £1m from legal work last year, including advising the scandal-hit British Virgin Islands.

Tory MPs fear Johnson’s botched handling of the standards issue, and his continued refusal to say sorry, have created a hostile environment in which the media will now hunt for stories about the conduct of MPs and peers.

“There’s a media narrative about sleaze now,” said one Tory MP. “Journalists are already trawling through the register of members’ interests. People are really angry with Boris.”

The Scottish National party has asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate a Sunday Times report that nearly all Tory treasurers who had donated at least £3m to the party had been given peerages.

Sir David Lidington, a former Tory cabinet minister who was an MP in the 1990s when Sir John Major’s government was crippled by an often unrelated series of “sleaze” stories, said Johnson needed to act.

“The risk for the government is that if they don’t grip this, it could run out of control,” he said.

Government insiders say there have been agonised discussions over the extent to which ministers should apologise, rather than merely express regret, for last week’s failed attempt to create a Tory-run committee to rewrite the Commons rules on standards.

Cox, who earns £82,000 a year as MP for Torridge and West Devon, took advantage of Covid-19 rules which allowed him to vote in the Commons by proxy from the BVI, which is facing a probe into its governance.

Johnson’s spokesman issued a thinly veiled rebuke to Cox on Tuesday, saying: “MPs’ primary job is and must be to serve their constituents and to represent their interests in parliament.

“They should be visible in their constituencies. If they’re not doing that, they’re not doing their job, and will be rightly judged on that by their constituents.”

Labour sought an inquiry into the actions of Cox, and asked whether he was actually “a Caribbean-based barrister”. The affair was first revealed by the Daily Mail.

Number 10 said the prime minister did not support an “outright” ban on second jobs for MPs, noting that some parliamentarians work in public-service roles such as doctors and nurses alongside their political activities.

Dominic Raab, justice secretary and deputy prime minister, insisted Cox’s work in the BVI was “legitimate” provided it was properly declared. Cox has so far not commented on the issue.

Many Tory MPs are furious with the prime minister, whose authority over his parliamentary party stems mainly from the fact he is a proven election winner.

Polls in the last few days have shown Tory support down to between 1 and 3 percentage points.

Chris Curtis of survey company Opinium noted that comparisons between the “sleaze” allegations of recent days and those of the dog days of the Major era are difficult, especially since the public did not yet show signs of tiring of Johnson’s government.

Curtis said that in the 1990s, Labour leader Tony Blair had established leads over Major on the economy and who would make the best prime minister. “Neither of those things are true at the moment,” he said.

A review into the MPs code of conduct and its operation is being conducted by the Commons standards committee.

The committee is considering the question of whether MPs should be allowed to take on second jobs, as well as a possible appeals mechanism for those accused of wrongdoing.

Labour’s Chris Bryant, the committee’s chair, told MPs on Tuesday that its members had decided to commission a “senior judicial figure” to advise on the reforms.

The government’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, recommended in 2018 that MPs should “not undertake outside employment as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”.

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