By Jack Horrigan
“Politician” is often a dirty word. It conjures images of backroom deals and conceit – in a word, sleaze. Much of the reputation is undeserved, but every so often, the stereotype is proven true.
Owen Paterson, a former Tory MP, was embroiled in a lobbying scandal. Mr Paterson was a prominent figure in the Conservative party, serving as former prime minister David Cameron’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and environmental secretary. Such a figure’s fall from grace would always make headlines, but the scandal itself is only part of the problem. The coverup may be worse.
Mr Paterson’s wrongdoing was standard, so far as lobbying scandals go. While serving as an MP, he served simultaneously as a paid lobbyist for several companies — and in some cases, failed to declare his interests. The Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards concluded this was a severe breach of the rules. Most in Parliament agreed. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, did not.
Mr Johnson decided to stand by Mr Patterson. Rather than attempt to defend him, the prime minister decided to change the rules ex post facto to exonerate him. His arm-twisting worked, and Conservative MPs reluctantly approved Mr Johnson’s scheme. But when faced with excoriation from the media, the opposition, and even those within his own party, the prime minister changed course. Mr Paterson promptly resigned.
This was an awkward situation for those Tory MPs who obediently voted in line with Downing Street’s orders. Many of them did not believe in Mr Paterson’s cause, and did not truly want to defend him. But compromising their morals is no great matter; compromising their chances at electoral victory is. Labour is already capitalizing on the situation, using the catch-all term “sleaze” to label the chaos of Mr Johnson’s government. All those who voted to effectively exonerate Mr Paterson, the opposition argues, are complicit.
This may not be as compelling to everyday voters as Labour hopes. The vast majority of the population is not as entangled in politics as MPs are. But in the case of Mr Johnson’s government, it may be a death by a thousand cuts. Mr Paterson is not the first ally of Mr Johnson’s to face scandal; the prime minister’s former top advisor, Dominic Cummings, was caught flagrantly breaking quarantine rules, and offered absurd explanations for his misdemeanor. Mr Johnson stood by his friend, just as he stood by Mr Paterson. Mr Cummings shared Mr Paterson’s date — he resigned as an advisor, and has recently turned into a critic of Mr Johnson’s administration.
But Mr Johnson’s instincts are clear. He is presiding over a mafia-style government, where those “in the family” are protected, and omertà reigns supreme. This is a fine way to run a mob; it is no way to run a country.
In light of Mr Johnson’s pattern of behaviour, Labour’s label of “sleaze” carries more weight. Previous prime ministers have been brought down for less. The government of John Major in the 1990s faced similar obstacles: a culture of scandal led to over a decade of Labour government. Perhaps Labour will once again take advantage of the Tory’s perceived ineptitude. Certainly they will try.
But the opposition is not immune from sleaze either. There are multiple Labour MPs who are also facing prosecution, including Jared O’Mara and Apsana Begum. The problem does not lay with Mr Johnson — it is not even exclusive to Tories. Westminster has a culture of MPs making private gain from public office. Being the people’s representative is not meant to be a part-time role.
It is worth examining why this particular strain of corruption has found such fecund breeding ground in Britain. It is still a liberal democracy with well-weathered institutions and norms; one would expect more fiduciary behaviour from its representatives. But perhaps its long history is part of the problem. Westminster has always been a clique –– in the far past, being an MP was not unlike joining a social club, one where members take care of members.
Clearly, this was Mr Paterson’s expectation. He was not wrong. The prime minister did in fact try to take care of him. Both did not expect it to dominate the news cycle for more than a few days, and both were mistaken. But Mr Paterson’s calculation should still be cause for concern. The fact that he felt comfortable breaking the rules is one thing — the fact that he guessed, correctly, that he would be able to enlist the prime minister to cover it up is another. The British public may count itself blessed that Mr Paterson did not get away with it. It would only encourage more malpractice. But the fact that so many backbenchers bowed to Mr Johnson’s orders — however much it turned their stomachs — points to how endemic sleaze is.
Beyond a fear of the ballot box, Mr Johnson has no great incentive to change his ways. He and his cronies are the beneficiaries of Westminster’s sleaze. In the long-term, however, it would do the government well to clean itself up. One of Britain’s most powerful assets abroad is its example, and a nation submerged in sleaze does not set a good one. And although Labour is weak, it will one day recover. Should Labour attempt something similar when they are next in power, the Tories will hardly be able to cry foul. Sleaze may benefit Mr Johnson, but it hurts the country.
It is proper that Mr Paterson resigned. But there will be more ministers like him. In Westminster, sleaze is ubiquitous. Treating the case of Mr Paterson as isolated is simply mowing the grass — the roots need to be pulled out too. This is what is most infuriating to observers of British politics. On the face of it, the system worked: an independent commission was alerted to potential misdemeanor, thoroughly investigated, came to a conclusion, and recommended a punishment of a 30 day suspension. That much is unimpeachable. The fault lies with three parties: Mr Paterson, for committing the offence, Mr Johnson, for ripping up the rule book, and Tory MPs, for allowing it.
There is no simple solution. The issue is cultural — and cultures can be difficult to change. The current lobbying regime is already rigid, but it could be stronger. Cultures change by practice. If politicians are forced to adhere to the rules, eventually they will obey out of habit. Of course, the easiest solution would be to have a scrupulous prime minister; absent that, some creativity is required. It is in everybody’s interest that sleaze is purged from British politics. Mr Johnson is focusing on the short term; it is time he looks to the future. A man so obsessed with his own legacy would do well to preserve it. Mr Johnson does not want to be remembered as the Don of Westminster.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.