Boris Johnson faces UK Parliament grilling over lobbying furore

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons, in London on Nov 3, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is battling a mounting backlash over his attempt to protect a Conservative lawmaker found to have broken lobbying rules, with Parliament set to hold an emergency debate on Monday (Nov 8).

Mr Johnson was forced to perform a U-turn following widespread condemnation - including from fellow Tories - of his decision to try to tear up Parliament rules rather than accept the suspension of Mr Owen Paterson, who was found guilty of paid advocacy on behalf of two companies.

The manoeuvre was attacked by Tory-leaning newspapers, and Mr John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, accused the Johnson government of being "politically corrupt."

The opposition Labour Party is expected to call for Mr Johnson to apologise when lawmakers in the House of Commons debate the Paterson case and standards later Monday.

"The prime minister is trashing the reputation of our democracy and our country," Labour leader Keir Starmer told BBC television on Sunday. "It is a pattern of behaviour from a prime minister who doesn't know to uphold standards in public life."

The episode has reignited allegations of sleaze against the Conservative Party, British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals.

More than a dozen Tory Members of Parliament defied Mr Johnson and voted against the government last Wednesday, and many more abstained.

Mr Paterson, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned after Mr Johnson was forced to back down.

The risk is that the scandal hurts Tory support among working-class voters in northern districts, whose switch away from Labour in 2019 helped Mr Johnson win a powerful parliamentary majority.

Mr Johnson's approval rating slumped to a record low in the wake of the botched attempt to spare the former government minister, according to an Opinium poll for the Observer newspaper, while the Conservatives' lead over Labour fell to just a single percentage point.

The Liberal Democrats, who secured the emergency debate, have called for an independent statutory public inquiry into sleaze and corruption allegations.

Speaking to broadcasters on Sunday, Environment Secretary George Eustice dismissed the furore as a "storm in a tea cup."

He said the aim of the vote was to create a proper appeals system for lawmakers accused of wrongdoing, but admitted that trying to link reform to the Paterson case had been a mistake.

In an attempt the shift the focus away from the scandal, the government announced on Monday that the National Health Service is to receive 250 million pounds (S$455.25 million) to digitise diagnostic services and help reduce patient waiting lists.

The investment is part of an agreed funding settlement for the NHS.

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