Pressure is growing on No 10 Downing Street to address government corruption with MPs calling on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant a full public inquiry into the allegations.
Mr Johnson's embattled government is becoming increasingly mired in sleaze after the MP Owen Paterson was found guilty of flouting parliamentary standards by taking £110,000 a year to lobby ministers directly on behalf of a company.
No 10 created a spectacular moment of self-destruction last week when it tried to overturn Mr Paterson’s 30-day suspension from the House of Commons.
The fallout from the Conservative government's inept handling of the affair – with accusations it was acting like a dictatorship by attempting to force through reforms to get its MP off the hook – has had a serious effect on Mr Johnson’s status.
Accusations of corruption and sleaze are cutting through to the public with latest polling showing Conservatives' lead over over the main opposition Labour Party cut to one per cent.
That could fall further if Downing Street fails to address the issue with members of its own party voicing deep concern over a lack of direction on the situation.
An inquiry could prove the best way out for Mr Johnson, although he is unlikely to grant the full public independent investigation being demanded.
Chris Bryant, the respected Labour MP and chairman of Parliament’s Committee on Standards, led calls for such an investigation. “I want MPs to be able to do their job properly,” he said. “I have some Conservative friends I disagree with about almost everything but they’re trying to change the world for the better. If there is corruption in the British political system, you can’t do that.”
A taste of what the government can expect in an emergency debate on standards later on Monday has come from both friend and foe.
“Time and again, government ministers have refused to properly investigate allegations of sleaze, failed to declare relevant meetings and donations and tried to rig the system to cover their own backs,” said Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain, who requested the standards debate. “We need an independent public inquiry, with the powers and resources to get to the bottom of this Conservative sleaze scandal.”
One Tory MP, elected in 2019, said the government needed “to get a grip and understand that this isn’t the way the world works any more”.
“People expect – rightly so – the highest standards,” the MP said.
Labour wants a full investigation into the awarding of multimillion-pound Covid contracts to those with political links to the Conservatives, as well as Mr Johnson’s failure to declare holidays abroad and the attempt to block Mr Paterson’s suspension.
Such an inquiry would have the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence under oath.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson should apologise to the nation and “clean out the filthy Augean stable he has created”.
“There is a whiff that the prime minister would quite like the scrutiny and the standards to be weakened because they are looking too closely at him,” Sir Keir told the BBC.
No peerage for Paterson, demands Starmer
He also demanded that it be “put on the record” that suspended MPs such as Mr Paterson will not be given a peerage in the House of Lords.
There are worries that the scandal could seriously damage Conservative support among working-class voters in northern England, whose switch away from Labour in the 2019 general election helped Mr Johnson win an 80-seat majority.
The public could vent their opprobrium in a run of four byelections, including that for Mr Paterson’s North Shropshire seat after his resignation last week.
The problem for Mr Johnson is that once acquired, a reputation for sleaze is difficult to shake off as the Conservative government in the 1990s discovered under John Major’s premiership.
At the weekend Mr Major himself called the government’s actions “shameful”, although those comments are likely to slip into the background once new invective is fired at Mr Johnson when MPs fill the Commons’ chamber later on Monday.