British PM Johnson's U-turn on disgraced MP makes Tories harder to control

British PM Boris Johnson faces a number of by-elections across England that will test his premiership in the coming weeks. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Boris Johnson has long defied British political gravity, relying on charisma to ride out a series of gaffes and missteps. But the Prime Minister's latest own goal threatens to damage his standing in the governing Conservative party and make it harder for him to govern.

Even by Mr Johnson's standards, the U-turn over a senior Tory found guilty of breaking lobbying rules has been turbulent.

On Wednesday (Nov 3), he told Conservative MPs to vote to rip up Parliament rules on standards rather than accept the 30-day suspension of Mr Owen Paterson, a former minister, over his paid advocacy on behalf of two companies.

By forcing his colleagues to back a plan they knew was unpopular, Mr Johnson cost them - and himself - considerable political capital.

So his sudden reversal on Thursday, following a barrage of criticism including from Tory-leaning newspapers, has made matters even worse. Furious Conservative MPs now say they will be even less willing to toe the line in future.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News on Friday it had been wrong to conflate "creating a fairer system" with the "particular case of Owen Paterson".

He said: "Upon reflection I do think it's a mistake", adding: "I take collective responsibility."

Chaotic day

Though only 13 Tory MPs voted directly against Mr Johnson's plan, many more abstained and there were growing signs of disarray in the aftermath.

Ministers said they had privately expressed their unhappiness before the vote, while the sudden climbdown meant a parliamentary aide to senior minister Michael Gove, who had been fired for defying Mr Johnson's voting instructions, was quickly reinstated.

A YouGov poll for The Times conducted on Wednesday evening found that the Conservative Party's lead over Labour has fallen to one points from six.

One Conservative MP who was elected in 2019 and spoke on condition of anonymity, complained Mr Johnson was trashing the reputation of the party for the sake of an old friend. Another, elected in the same year, said the episode has exposed the division between younger and older Conservative MPs - both agreed their support for Mr Johnson had slipped.

A third said that they could not believe the political costs they had been forced to incur purely to bailout out Mr Paterson. Getting involved in Mr Paterson's case was always a risky decision for Mr Johnson. It reignited allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals, just as the prime minister tries to get his government back on track after the pandemic.

Now Mr Johnson faces a number of by-elections across England that will test his premiership in the coming weeks: One in Mr Paterson's seat of North Shropshire, on England's border with northern Wales, and another in Old Bexley and Sidcup, east London, following the death of Conservative MP James Brokenshire. Labour will put up candidates in both these contests.

There will also be a by-election in Southend West, south-east England, after the killing of Conservative MP David Amess, but opposition parties will stand aside here. There could also be one in Leicester East, in the Midlands, if independent MP Claudia Webbe bows to pressure and resigns after being convicted of harassment.

Past criticism

It has also drawn attention to Mr Johnson's own history with Parliament's standards authorities, on issues ranging from who paid for a luxury holiday to the late declaration of payments for his non-MP work.

Another Conservative MP said Mr Johnson's reputation for both sleaze and U-turns is making the party increasingly ungovernable, pointing out that controversial votes in future will be much harder for the government to win.

The Paterson case is only the latest in a series of policy reversals. Conservative MPs have been asked to vote to allow sewage into the sea, defend a cut to free school meals - twice - and back a flawed school exam algorithm last year, before the government backtracked on all.

In June then Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned from the Cabinet for breaching social distancing rules, just a day after Mr Johnson declared the matter "closed".

For opposition politicians, who yelled "shame" at the government benches as Wednesday's vote result was read out, it is an open door to put allegations of corruption and sleaze back in the spotlight.

In the end, Mr Johnson's maneuvers came to nothing, especially as Mr Paterson resigned as an MP on Thursday while still protesting his innocence. In a statement, Mr Johnson paid tribute to their decades-long friendship, saying Mr Paterson "was an early and powerful champion of Brexit".

As his officials try to quickly move on, the risk for Mr Johnson is if angry Tories, subject to abuse on e-mail, social media and even an attack on one MP's local office, prove to have long memories.

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