Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has suggested that Boris Johnson’s handling of former MP Owen Paterson has “trashed” the UK’s worldwide reputation for upholding democratic standards.
Starmer told BBC One’s “Andrew Marr Show” that, “Instead of upholding standards, [the prime minister] ordered his MPs to protect his mate and rip up the whole system”.
Last week, after a two-year-long investigation, the parliamentary watchdog found Paterson guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules that had “brought the House into disrepute”. The then-MP for North Shropshire was accused of breaching paid advocacy rules for making approaches to the Food Standards Agency as an employee of both the healthcare company Randox Laboratories and meat supplier Lynn’s Country Foods.
Paterson rejected the watchdog’s findings and denies any wrongdoing.
On Wednesday, Conservative MPs were given a three-line whip to vote in favour of an amendment tabled by Andrea Leadsom that would overturn Paterson’s suspension and reform current standards procedures. The amendment passed 250–232 with only 13 Conservative MPs voting against. However, after a furious backlash from opposition parties, who made it clear that they were not willing to participate in the new standards procedures, Downing Street changed its mind.
Paterson has now quit as an MP.
Also speaking to Andrew Marr this morning, Environment Secretary George Eustice defended the government position as giving Paterson the right to appeal against the findings against him, adding “we’ve been consistent on this throughout”. But, speaking on Sky News earlier this morning, Eustice acknowledged the government had “made a mistake” trying to get Paterson’s breach of rules re-examined by a Conservative-majority committee
In starker terms, Starmer told Marr that this “is corrupt, contemptible and not a one-off”. The Leader of the Opposition pointed to the resignation of the prime minister’s independent adviser on Ministerial Code following Home Secretary Priti Patel’s bullying allegations as further evidence of “sleaze”.
Drawing a comparison to John Major, the former Conservative PM who made a damning intervention in the Paterson row yesterday, Starmer said: “When there was sleaze in the mid-1990s, John Major rolled up his sleeves and he put in place the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life … [whereas] Boris Johnson is the prime minister who is leading his troops through the sewer”. “He’s up to his neck in this”, Starmer added.
A visibly angry Starmer then drew attention to Britain’s relatively clean reputation for corruption and public standards across the world, arguing that that the PM is “tarnishing this”.
Starmer’s intervention comes as Labour MPs have called for the resignation of key Cabinet members and, even, Johnson himself. Shadow leader of the Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, said Rees-Mogg’s position had become “untenable”, stating further that Boris Johnson should also “consider his position”.
When questioned by Marr, who suggested such calls were “playing politics”, Starmer refused to say whether Boris Johnson should resign.