Only full public inquiry into sleaze claims can save PM’s bacon
The re-emergence of sleaze allegations against the Conservatives, arising out of the Owen Paterson affair, is a nightmare for the Tories as they continue to struggle with the quixotic leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
For a significant number in the Tory ranks, Boris’s departure as leader is overdue and the longer he continues in office, they nervously realise, the greater the electoral liability he will become.
These sleaze allegations are highly damaging, as the Tory party had spent years exorcising the taint of sleaze, long after the “cash-for- questions” scandal had been vigorously dealt with by John Major.
The Tories are exceptionally vulnerable to claims of corruption, given their previous form. Sleaze is their Achilles heel.
In a tired performance to the Tory 1922 backbench committee, Boris admitted that he had “crashed the car” over the way he dealt with the Owen Paterson parliamentary investigation into the breach of lobbying rules.
This understatement is an indication of Boris’s own serious lack of judgment. One backbencher described him as being “like an old rock star in need of new material”.
Worse still, the cavalier way he dealt with it reveals much about his own disregard for parliamentary standards.
Even before the disgraceful parliamentary vote, organised by the Tory whips to protect Paterson from being suspended from Parliament for 30 days (a unanimous decision of the Standards Committee), there was deep unease expressed by Conservative backbench MPs about the unethical approach of the Government.
Naturally, there was sympathy for Owen Paterson, owing to the tragic suicide of his wife, Rose, but many MPs took the view, that he was the author of his own downfall and should face the consequences, which were severe, but not fatal to his political career.
Boris eventually threw Paterson to the wolves in one of his now-customary U-turns after widespread public anger over his attempt to rescue him.
This, too, was indicative of an amoral prime minister, who is devoid of any principle and is only concerned with political tactics, that save his own skin.
The departure of Owen Paterson was hardly lamented by many here, who saw him as an indifferent secretary of state, with a blatant pro-unionist bias. Nationalists will recall his ill-thought-out decision to axe the 50/50 recruitment policy for the PSNI.
Paterson was found guilty by the Parliamentary Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, and the Parliamentary Standards Committee of breaching lobbying rules in his paid work for Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods between November 2016 and February 2020.
Randox paid him £100,00 per year. Both are highly successful local firms. This was no line-ball decision by the Standards Committee. The Commissioner concluded in her report that Paterson had, “repeatedly used his position as a member (of Parliament) to promote the companies by whom he was paid”.
She added that, “he failed to establish the proper boundaries between his private commercial work and his parliamentary activities”.
Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, has for some time been in the political doldrums, having failed to put a glove on Johnson. Up until now, Johnson has been able to intercept and shoot down Starmer’s parliamentary missiles.
Starmer’s lawyerly manner has failed until now to ignite Labour, or the general public’s, opposition to Johnson’s bungling over Covid, or Brexit.
But the tide may have turned for Starmer, as he has seized the moment arising out of the Paterson lobbying scandal and called for an investigation into huge contracts awarded to Randox.
The Labour leader has demanded a full, transparent investigation into a contract awarded to Randox by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) worth £133m in March 2020, for which there was no public tender, and another, £346m, contract in October 2020 to Randox under a variation agreement.
Starmer warned that it is, “vital that the public have confidence that Owen Paterson’s advocacy did not influence these decisions”.
These contracts were justified by the DHSC as a procurement policy devised for the pandemic, which allowed contracts to be directly awarded to a company if “only one supplier is capable of delivering the requirement, or due to extreme urgency brought about by unforeseen events”.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Randox company was also a regular political donor, from 2011 to 2018, to the Conservative Party.
While its donations were properly made and declared, this creates a further area of concern over the whole, sorry mess that Paterson has created for Boris and his government.
Until these contracts are fully investigated, Boris will have to endure this issue like a man with an albatross hanging around his neck.
The longer he delays, the greater the damage for him — and for his party.