Britain forced Boris Johnson to U-turn on corruption. What happened?

Francois Lenoir/Reuters/File
British Conservative Party politician Owen Paterson (center), shown here leaving a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, on Oct. 22, 2018, is at the center of a British political scandal after a parliamentary anti-corruption watchdog found him guilty of taking payments for lobbying. The Conservative government tried to disband the watchdog, leading to a public outcry.

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On its face, the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative government is facing a scandal over its attempt to rewrite the rules in favor of letting one of its own members of Parliament off the hook for corruption.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed ahead with a vote to disband an independent cross-party committee after it found Owen Paterson, the man at the center of the scandal, guilty of taking payments from two businesses in exchange for lobbying governmental departments on their behalf. He then reversed course after an outcry from both the public and politicians, including those in his own party.

Why We Wrote This

British politics have been rocked by a cash-for-access scandal that caused Boris Johnson to do an about-face on easing anti-sleaze rules. It is proving a gut check for traditional democratic values.

But more deeply, the scandal has exposed a major breach of trust in British politics that “raises some questions about the rule of law,” says researcher Daniela Nadj. “Governments with a large majority can overturn processes and procedures because they’re not codified in a written constitution. That is problematic.”

“This scandal resonates because it comes after several years where the rule of law has been challenged by Brexit, with the perceived undermining of the judiciary and the sense the government was prepared to play fast and loose in order to get Brexit through Parliament,” says Patrick Diamond, a former Labour government policy adviser.

It took Boris Johnson’s government under 24 hours to perform a U-turn on its controversial plan to seize control of a parliamentary anti-corruption watchdog. But even in that short period of time, it put Britain through a serious gut check on its democratic values.

From within the governing Tory Party, former ministers such as Tobias Ellwood lamented that the “mother of Parliaments” had been severely damaged. “We have lost our way and we need to find our moral compass,” he said.

Across the political spectrum, leading political figures and prominent media lined up alongside opposition leader Keir Starmer, who described the prime minister as “corrupt and contemptible” for giving the “green light to corruption.”

Why We Wrote This

British politics have been rocked by a cash-for-access scandal that caused Boris Johnson to do an about-face on easing anti-sleaze rules. It is proving a gut check for traditional democratic values.

On its face, the scandal is about the manner in which the ruling Conservative government attempted to rewrite the rules so as to let one of its own members of Parliament off the hook. Owen Paterson, the man at the center of the scandal, had been deemed guilty by an independent cross-party committee of having taken payments from two businesses in exchange for lobbying government departments on their behalf. Even as the government proposed disbanding the committee, Mr. Paterson was allowed to remain in his seat and vote for the suspension of the system of checks and balances that had punished him.

But more deeply, the scandal has exposed a major breach of trust in British politics that “raises some questions about the rule of law,” says Daniela Nadj, research fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law. “Governments with a large majority can overturn processes and procedures because they’re not codified in a written constitution. That is problematic,” she worries.

“The job of a British MP has no job description,” says Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “It’s a series of people making it up as they go along and [using] convention [to set] down what’s OK and what’s not.”

Misbehaving in broad daylight

Corruption scandals are not uncommon in British politics. In the 1990s, a series of scandals rocked the Tory Party, most notably when Sunday Times journalists rang the offices of two Tory MPs and offered cash in exchange for questions asked on their behalf in Parliament.

The MP expenses scandal in 2009 saw almost daily revelations across British headlines of members of Parliament using public money on anything from second homes to duck houses.

Patrick Diamond, a policy adviser at 10 Downing Street at the time, remembers that the general public “didn’t blame one party; they thought this was a plague on all houses. It reinforced cynicism.”

Dr. Diamond, now a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, says the current scandal “brings out issues” simmering from the impression that Mr. Johnson frequently disregards the rules. During his tenure, he has been accused of trying to water down a report that examined whether Home Secretary Priti Patel bullied staff, and was found by the Supreme Court to have unlawfully closed down Parliament just weeks before a key Brexit deadline.

“This scandal resonates because it comes after several years where the rule of law has been challenged by Brexit, with the perceived undermining of the judiciary and the sense the government was prepared to play fast and loose in order to get Brexit through Parliament,” says Dr. Diamond.

Journalists covering the government since 2019 have noticed a shift in the way British lawmakers do, and do not, apply rules to themselves.

“Reporters of the past often had to dig into dark corners to uncover examples of corruption and wrongdoing. That hasn’t been the case with this government,” says Sam Bright, an investigative journalist who helped uncover the awarding of government contracts for face masks and medical gowns during the pandemic to offshore firms and companies owned by Conservative donors.

He says a pattern of behavior has emerged under Mr. Johnson’s populist-leaning government, “which has misbehaved repeatedly in broad daylight, from dodgy coronavirus contracts to the overt demonization of asylum seekers.”

“Boris Johnson’s government isn’t scared of being accused of wrongdoing, which, if you think about it, is quite a scary thing.”

“A Conservative problem”

Mr. Paterson has since resigned from his post as MP, but financial scandals continue to emerge around the Tories. It has since been alleged that a £3 million ($4 million) gift to the Conservative party is enough to buy the donor a seat in the House of Lords, the U.K.’s unelected upper legislative chamber.

While the Paterson scandal may not be significant enough to create fundamental change, it has shifted the current political popularity stakes, with Labour overtaking the Conservatives by a point in a poll of voting intentions. “While all MPs will be affected by this, this scandal is seen as a Conservative problem. The usually friendly media have been some of the sternest critics,” says Dr. Russell.

Mr. Johnson remains comfortably in charge, but the scandal remains a setback nonetheless. “The Conservatives have caught sight of themselves and seen how it looks,” says Dr. Russell. “For the first time, the government under Boris Johnson – which has a sizable majority – has seen how public support can ebb away.”

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