Boris Johnson was today facing the prospect of two fresh sleaze inquiries into his own behaviour, as signs grew that his botched attempt to save a senior Tory MP from punishment for paid lobbying has shaken his authority within his own party.
Labour demanded a probe by Commons standards commissioner Kathryn Stone into Mr Johnson’s failure to declare a freebie holiday in Spain as the guest of recently-ennobled Zac Goldsmith in the MPs register of interests, as Downing Street refused to reveal the value of the luxury break.
And the party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote to Ms Stone urging her not to allow pressure from the PM to deter her from launching a delayed inquiry into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment at a reported cost of £200,000. Ms Rayner said it was “vital” that the commissioner launches the investigation, which has been put on hold since Labour’s initial complaint in April while she awaits the outcome of a separate Electoral Commission inquiry.
The Commission confirmed that it has sent its initial findings to the Conservatives to allow the party a chance to respond before publishing its report. Downing Street refused to say whether the PM had seen the findings.
Mr Johnson’s abortive attempt earlier this week to establish a Tory-dominated committee to rewrite the Commons standards procedures was “a blatant attempt to prevent the commissioner from investigating his latest breaches of the rules”, said Ms Rayner.
“It is absolutely vital that the parliamentary commissioner for standards is now able to conduct this investigation without any further attempts by the prime minister to block this investigation, over-ride or abolish the commissioner or the standards committee and the bullying, threats and intimidation from Conservative ministers must stop immediately.”
Mr Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings has described Wednesday’s attempt to get former minister Owen Paterson off the hook as a “pre-emptive strike” against Ms Stone. He today urged her to call witnesses to answer questions on the flat funding, saying: “The Electoral Commission – like (Downing Street ethics adviser Lord) Geidt – has so far interviewed NONE of the people who know/involved in PM’s illegal secret donations.”
After business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng came under fire for suggesting that it was “difficult to see a future” for the independent commissioner, Downing Street said that Mr Johnson accepted Ms Stone should not be put under political pressure.
Asked if the PM would condemn any MP trying to put pressure on her to drop the complaint, initially made by Margaret Hodge in April, the spokesperson said: “Obviously we wouldn’t want to see that happening.”
The developments came amid indications of a growing mood of assertiveness among the younger 2019 intake of Tory MPs, who have largely been loyal to the PM after being elected on the back of his popular “Get Brexit Done” campaign, but have been infuriated by his mishandling of the Paterson affair.
One MP told The Independent said that the disastrous bid to tear up Commons standards rules on Wednesday had crystallised dissatisfaction among younger MPs at being used as lobby fodder by Conservative high command.
“We were dragooned into trying to save the skin of someone who probably wouldn’t recognise us in the corridor,” said the MP. “We are flexing our muscles now and we are not going to take any more of this nonsense from the old guard.”
There were calls for the dismissal of chief whip Mark Spencer, with one MP saying that “his authority is not there any more” after the humiliating U-turn which saw MPs subjected to a three-line whip on Wednesday only to see the government about-turn just 19 hours later. One of the 2019 intake – Guildford’s Angela Richardson – was sacked as a parliamentary aide for defying the whip, only to be reinstated the following morning when the government’s position changed.
Another MP said she had “been flung under a bus for one man” and asked “was it worth it?” And another criticised “huge party mismanagement” by the whips. Reports suggested that a member of the 2019 intake confronted Paterson to his face with a four-letter rebuke as they went through the voting lobby.
York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said: “I cannot avoid being critical of the government who reassured backbenchers that there was a clear plan for reform, yet subsequently turned the matter into a party-line debate. Reform of the committee on standards is needed but I pledge not to support any reforms that do not bring all sides of the House together as we need to build a fair system that not only has the support of MPs but the confidence of the public also.”
Downing Street failed to deny claims that MPs had been told government funding for their constituencies could be at risk if they defied the whip. And a No 10 spokesman was forced to insist that both Mr Spencer and leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, a driving force behind the plan to save Paterson, continued to enjoy the prime minister’s “full confidence”.
As polls suggested a sharp fall in Conservative support following the sleaze debacle, senior Labour MP Margaret Hodge told The Independent that the “only logical explanation” for the PM’s actions was that he was worried about the prospect of fresh inquiries into his behaviour and that of other senior Tories.
Dame Margaret – who initially asked Ms Stone to look into the “cash-for-curtains” flat refurbishment in April – said: “The only logical explanation for deliberately ignoring a clear case of corruption (in the Paterson affair) is that there are more cases coming down the line and they wanted to stop them happening. Mine is one of them.”
And in a separate letter to Ms Stone, Ms Rayner said that the PM’s failure to register his Marbella break “appears to be a breach of the House code of conduct”.
Downing Street insisted that the PM had “met transparency requirements” by making a declaration under the separate ministerial code, and there was no need to repeat it in the MPs’ register of interests.
“This was a family holiday at the home of long-standing family, friends and is unconnected with the PM’s parliamentary and political activities,” said a spokesperson..
“The PM has written to the House of Commons registrar to set out that this holiday has been declared under the ministerial code because the arrangement is with another minister.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had “piled the reputations of 248 of his own MPs on his bonfire of corruption” by forcing them through the Aye lobby on Wednesday and would pay the price at the ballot box.
“Boris Johnson truly believes there should be one rule for him and his friends, another for the rest of us,” said Starmer.
“As Director of Public Prosecutions, securing the interests of ordinary people against the crooked and the powerful, I’ve seen this attitude many times before. It is the hallmark of every out-of-touch, arrogant, condescending elite that thinks they should be above scrutiny.
“But something I’ve learned over the years is that pride comes before a fall. You might get away with it for a while, but it always catches up with you in the end. If the prime minister continues down this path – of sleaze, cronyism, corruption – the lesson from this week is that it will be on the ballot box at the next election.”
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted it was “absolutely not true” that Mr Johnson had tried to nobble the standards commissioner, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Kathryn Stone and her duties are the responsibility of the House of Commons, and the Speaker of the House.”
Mr Zahawi defended the PM’s U-turn on reform of the standards process, telling LBC: “When you make a mistake, I’d much rather have a government and a prime minister and the chief whip who says, ‘Hold on a second, let’s go back, because I think we’ve made a mistake here’.”