Dealing with the Sleaze range has challenged the prime minister’s abilities among MPs, writes Katy Balls
But instead of showing that Britain can play some green muscles on the world stage, Johnson has faced some of the worst front pages since becoming Prime Minister when a Tory sleaze dispute broke out in Westminster.
This should be the week Boris Johnson put Global Britain on the map at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow.
To say that No. 10’s decision to back Owen Paterson for violating lobbying rules backfired would be an understatement.
After MPs were instructed to block his suspension and vote for a new standard system, Downing Street was forced to change its plans before lunch the next day.
Paterson has now resigned as a Member of Parliament, but the matter is far from over. The Tory poll leadership has suffered a blow, MPs are on the sidelines and the CCHQ must prepare for a by-election in Paterson’s Shropshire seat.
“It is a total disaster,” says one MP. “Downing Street managed to piss off absolutely everyone,” added one government official.
Paterson supporters are upset that No 10 turned around, while critics are upset that they were ever asked to support him.
A sign of discontent can be found in the guilt game that is now playing out across Westminster. Tory MPs are fed up with Paterson’s friends – many of whom are on the party’s Brexiteer European Research Group – standing up for him.
Bernard Jenkin – a friend of the MP who has retired from committee – spent much of Wednesday morning posting his article in several WhatsApp groups in defense of the proposed changes.
As for the Cabinet, the two ministers most criticized are Chief Whip Mark Spencer and House Chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Rees-Mogg used a podcast to ask questions about his treatment and was instrumental in getting the plan through when it came to the motion and parliamentary strategy.
Numbers in # 10 challenge Spencer’s ability to do his job as chief whip. They claim that due to poor intelligence, the Prime Minister did not know how badly the plan would go down with his party.
But Spencer’s allies complain that he’s being made a convenient scapegoat. Many MPs failed to respond when government officials tried to get a sense of the mood prior to the vote while Johnson was preoccupied with COP26 when he could have spoken on the phone to address Tory’s concerns.
The criticism extends to Johnson’s own team in # 10. Why didn’t anyone on the building tell the Prime Minister it was a mistake? While Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield and members of the press office reportedly warned of the idea, they appeared to have had little effect.
“There has been so much commotion at 10 Downing Street that there aren’t many people left for the prime minister to listen to,” said a Westminster insider. “There are a lot of yes men.”
Johnson also can’t help but believe that it was ultimately he who made the decision to move on. This leads to questions among MPs about his influence over the government and his ability to make the big calls.
While Johnson tends to dismiss stories he dislikes as “Westminster Bubble themes,” it is difficult to do so.
MPs are complaining that this is not the same level as Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle series, but they have received a large number of emails and messages on the matter.
The concern of the senior Tories is that the effects will last longer in two ways. The first is Tory Sleaze. Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have been trying to land such attacks for some time, but to the relief of many at Number 10, their attempts to turn the lavish renovation of the Downing Street apartment into a weapon ahead of the local elections have met with little success.
Now the Tories have brought the subject back to the fore. Johnson already has a checkered history with the standard commissioner when it comes to how long it took him to explain who paid Mustique for his vacation in 2019.
The inspector was able to see the apartment renovation. If Johnson disguises this or refuses to cooperate, it could play further into this narrative.
“The problem is that it is perfectly plausible that No 10 wanted to introduce a new standard system to help the prime minister,” says a government insider.
Even if future Tory Sleaze ranks can be avoided, party management has become even more difficult. One of the few people in the Tory Party who got their name out of this episode is Tory MP Angela Richardson.
She refused to vote with the government despite the presence of a three-line whip, and then lost her job as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Michael Gove, only to be reinstated.
“Good luck that the MPs are voting for the next unpopular position. Lots of people went against their better opinion just to be humiliated, ”complains a senior Tory.