LONDON – “Shameless.” “Sleazy.” “Guilty.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced damning headlines on Thursday that cast his government in a dismal light just as he browbeats world powers to show moral leadership over climate change.
The government tore up the rulebook on how parliament polices ethical lapses by its members Wednesday, after an excoriating cross-party standards committee report on illegal lobbying by Conservative MP Owen Paterson.
The standards committee recommended Paterson be suspended for 30 sitting days, which could trigger a by-election in his seat.
But Johnson ordered his MPs to vote for an overhaul of parliament’s internal disciplinary process instead, effectively letting the former minister off the hook.
Paterson claims he was given no right of appeal by the committee, and that its investigation was a factor in the suicide of his wife last year.
Opposition parties vowed to boycott the new process. Their members shouted “shame”, and one Labour MP waved a wad of banknotes at the government benches.
Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, told AFP that the government’s actions coinciding with COP26 and a prior G20 summit in Rome this week “stink of hypocrisy”.
“They started the week lecturing the world on going green while backing new oil and gas in the North Sea, and now they’re talking of ‘due process’ while voting to help one of their own escape punishment.
“This is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ government whose credibility in both Britain and abroad is sinking fast,” she said.
– U-turn –
The right-wing Daily Mail, normally supportive of Johnson’s Conservatives, ran a blistering front page linking the Paterson affair to revelations from 2009 that many MPs had been fiddling their expenses.
That scandal, coming just after the global financial crisis, fed public disgust with politicians and fostered a climate of mistrust leading up to Britain’s shock decision in 2016 to quit the European Union.
The government backtracked Thursday and said the proposed disciplinary reforms would not apply to the Paterson case, and a new debate was scheduled for Monday next week.
It reinstated one Conservative rebel to her job as a ministerial aide, and disowned remarks by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng calling for the resignation of the independent standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone.
But as it did so, Paterson quit in disgust, vowing to remain in public service but outside the “cruel world of politics”.
“Clearly we fully recognise the strength of feeling from members on this,” Johnson’s spokesman said, as the head of the committee on standards in public life called the vote “a very serious and damaging moment for parliament” which risked harming Britain’s international reputation.
Johnson faced separate claims of double standards after he flew back from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to London late on Tuesday.
Reports said he returned for a reunion dinner at a men-only private club with old newspaper colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, including former editor Charles Moore — a sceptic about man-made climate change.
Labour accused Johnson of “staggering hypocrisy”, after he warned world leaders in Glasgow that future generations “will not forgive us” if they fail to confront climate change.
Downing Street defended Johnson’s decision to fly back to London rather than take the train, pleading time constraints and saying the carbon emissions were offset.
– Trust us –
The UK government went into COP26 accused of hypocrisy on another front, after cutting its budget for foreign aid, having spent gargantuan sums on the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson was also distracted at the summit by an ongoing row with France, which accuses him of acting in bad faith over post-Brexit fishing rights.
In Glasgow, the business secretary insisted the rest of the world could still trust Britain.
The government is “completely focused on trying to restore a degree of integrity and also probity in public life”, Kwarteng told the BBC.
Johnson had delivered on his election manifesto pledge to “get Brexit done”, he said. “We’ve also made very explicit comments and commitments on climate change.
“Holding yourself to manifesto commitments and delivering those commitments, I think, is a feature of integrity.”
But Hannah Martin, co-director of the UK campaign group Green New Deal Rising, said the government had undermined its moral leadership on all fronts.
“It’s no wonder that young people don’t trust leaders to deliver on climate policies, when politicians are simultaneously closing ranks around an MP mired in corruption charges,” she told AFP.