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Politics

‘A fish rots from the head down’: MPs hammer absent Boris Johnson in Owen Paterson scandal debate

MPs took aim at Johnson for “trashing UK democracy” after his government attempted to undermine the process investigating politicians’ conduct.

MPs launched a blistering attack on an absent Boris Johnson during an emergency debate on the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal.

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the prime minister  of “giving the green light to corruption” after his government tried to overturn the suspension of shamed former cabinet minister Paterson, before trying to shut down parliament’s standards committee entirely.

An investigation found Paterson had lobbied ministers on behalf of companies which were paying him around £100,000 as a consultant. He was set to be handed a 30-day suspension for the “egregious case of paid advocacy”, but the government instead proposed a new Conservative-led committee to monitor MPs’ conduct.

As the scandal reached boiling point, Paterson resigned as an MP and said he would pursue interests outside of public life. But Commons ire was directed at Boris Johnson, who claimed a “long-standing” commitment to visit a hospital in Northumberland meant he could not be present at the debate.

“He does not even have the decency to come here either to defend what he did or apologise for his actions,” Starmer said.

“The prime minister is running scared. When required to lead he’s chosen to hide.

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“His concern as always is self-preservation, not the national interest. We will not stand by while he trashes our democracy.”

Johnson used Paterson as a “pawn in an extraordinary attack on our commissioner for standards”, Starmer added, making it “accepted wisdom” that “politicians are all in it for themselves”.

Cabinet minister Steve Barclay appeared at the despatch box instead, expressing “regret for the mistake made last week”.

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But Barclay would not apologise for the sleaze scandal, instead repeating the government’s commitment to reforming the Commons standards process with input from other parties.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the house, opened the debate with a plea to politicians to approach the issue “in a non-partisan spirit” – which was met with laughter.

Opposition MPs warned ministers’ attempts to swerve accountability had placed focus on “the shenanigans of this government” rather than the vital climate negotiations taking place at COP26.

“Over the last 20 months my constituents have had to follow more rules than they’ve ever had to deal with before,” said Wendy Chamberlain, chief whip for the Liberal Democrats, “while we’re sadly governed by ministers who seem to care less about the rules than any predecessors in living memory.”

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Chamberlain called for a public inquiry into Westminster corruption, adding: “People around the country who play by the rules deserve answers and instead they are being let down by a prime minister who won’t even take the most basic of steps to turn up to this debate.

“A fish rots from the head down.”

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