Vicious blame game erupts after Boris’s sleaze U-turn fiasco: Livid Tories target ‘out of his depth’ chief whip Mark Spencer – but allies insist he had ‘total support and approval’ from PM who flew back from COP hours before vote
Livid Tories today hammered chief whip Mark Spencer over the Commons sleaze shambles branding him ‘out of his depth’ and warning his credibility is ‘below junk bond status’.
Mr Spencer is facing the wrath of many MPs over the bungled bid to save Owen Paterson from punishment over lobbying, which culminated in an humiliating U-turn and the ex-minister resigning from parliament.
The meltdown is said to have left some MPs in marginal Red Wall seats ‘in tears’ as they were hit with a barrage of abuse on social media and in their postbags.
However, allies of Mr Spencer have hit back by pointing the finger at Mr Johnson – saying the chief would not have acted without ‘total support and approval’ from No10.
The backlash has intensified after a poll suggested the Tories have suffered huge damage from the debacle, with their poll lead plunging by five points in a week.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi tried to cool the growing backlash among MPs this morning, admitting that the government ‘made a mistake’ in retrospectively tying Mr Paterson’s case to wider reforms.
But a blame game is in full swing over who was responsible for the meltdown. As well as a wave of anger about Mr Johnson’s lack of judgment – with criticism that took his eye off the ball amid the COP26 summit – Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mr Spencer are taking flak.
One former minister told MailOnline that Mr Spencer had not done his job properly. ‘If the PM was told about the extent of dissatisfaction then he wouldn’t have pushed it,’ they said. ‘You could tell there was a problem because the whips were literally running around the Commons.’
Another Conservative MP said Mr Spencer is a ‘very nice guy’ but ‘out of his depth’. ‘The Cabinet is full of nodding yes men,’ they raged. ‘We have a chief whip who doesn’t communicate anything back to No10 that he doesn’t think No10 wants to hear.
‘There’s a mindset of we’ve got an 80-strong majority, we can do whatever the hell we like.
‘I had two marginal male MPs from Red Wall seats in tears looking at their social media feed, looking at their emails coming in after the vote, going ‘what the hell have we done?’.’
The MP insisted that his colleagues were determined not to be ‘sh** on’ again and would simply ignore stupid demands from the leadership.
‘The chat on the WhatsApp groups is that the whips can stick their whipping up their a***. It’s now every man for himself,’ they said.
The premier is said to be ‘p****d off’ that the crisis has distracted from the progress being made on climate change at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow. Senior MPs said he was also ‘livid’ about triumphalist interviews by Mr Paterson in which he claimed he would not change anything about his past behaviour.
No10 has been forced to deny claims that his botched effort to overhaul the standards process had been a ‘pre-emptive’ strike on commissioner Kathryn Stone – with whom Mr Johnson has clashed repeatedly.
He is still under the threat of inquiry by the watchdog into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment, with a decision due to be taken on whether to go ahead once a separate Electoral Commission investigation.
No10, however, was quick to reject suggestions that the case was linked to attempts to reform the rules over the last few days.
Mr Johnson (left) first ordered Tory MPs to ram through plans to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules to save Mr Paterson (right), before abandoning the idea in the face of a public outcry.
Research by YouGov carried out in the wake of the dramatic Commons vote to suspend the standards system showed the Tory poll lead plunging by five points
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi tried to cool the growing backlash among MPs this morning, admitting that the government ‘made a mistake’ in retrospectively tying Mr Paterson’s case to wider reforms
What happens next after Boris Johnson’s humiliating U-turn on standards shake-up?
Tory MPs won a vote on Wednesday to block the suspension of Owen Paterson and to overhaul the House of Commons’ standards system.
But the Government has now announced a U-turn following a ferocious backlash.
What has the Government U-turned on and what will happen next?
The Government performed a U-turn on its decision to block the 30-day suspension of Tory MP Owen Paterson from the House of Commons after he was found to have breached lobbying rules.
They initially insisted that was part of wider reform of the standards system, with a committee being created to draw up new rules.
But that idea was humiliatingly dropped after Opposition parties boycotted it and the scale and anger became clear.
A new vote on suspending Mr Paterson was due to be brought forward by the Government in the coming weeks.
But his resignation from the Commons last night means that is no longer needed.
Meanwhile, the handling of the row has inflamed tensions with opposition parties which means the floated ‘cross-party discussions’ may struggle to get off the ground.
What did MPs vote for on Wednesday?
Allies of Mr Paterson tabled an amendment to block his suspension from the House of Commons.
The amendment was passed by 250 votes to 232 after Mr Johnson instructed Tory MPs to vote for it.
The amendment proposed creating a new committee with a Tory majority to review the case of Mr Paterson and to make recommendations on the overhaul of the current standards process.
How would the amendment have changed the standards rules?
The new committee would have been tasked with looking at whether the standards system should give MPs ‘the same or similar rights as apply to those subject to investigations of alleged misconduct in other workplaces and professions’.
That would include looking at things like the right to representation, examination of witnesses and the right of appeal.
Who was Mr Paterson working for?
Mr Paterson became a consultant to clinical diagnostics firm Randox – which sponsors the Grand National horse race – in August 2015, a year after he left Government after serving as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Environment under David Cameron.
He has carried out a similar role for Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products including ‘nitrite-free’ items, since December 2016.
Both firms are based in Northern Ireland and between them paid him more than £112,000 a year on top of his £80,000 annual MP salary.
What is Mr Paterson said to have done?
Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone found that he breached paragraph 11 of the 2015 MPs’ Code of Conduct that prohibits ‘paid advocacy’ – when he made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and testing for antibiotics in milk in November 2016 and November 2017
Emails to the FSA read like marketing pitched on behalf of the firm, mentioning ‘Randox’s superior technology’ in helping identify problems.
He went on to suggest that ‘once established the application of the technology could be discussed not just within the FSA but across the whole dairy industry,’ something from which the company stood to make large sums of money.
The hardline Brexiteer broke the same rules by making seven approaches to the FSA for Lynn’s Country Foods in November 2017, January 2018 and July 2018 regarding a rival ‘global food producer (who) was acting in breach of EU law by mislabelling a product’.
And the same rules were breached in October 2016 and January 2017 when he made four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology.
Ms Stone also found that Mr Paterson had breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 MPs’ Code of Conduct, on declarations of interest, by failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to officials at the FSA on 16 November 2016, 15 November 2017, 8 January 2018 and 17 January 2018.
Lastly, she found that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, by using his Westminster office on 16 occasions for business meetings with his paying clients between October 2016 and February 2020; and in sending two letters, on 13 October 2016 and 16 January 2017, relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper.
What punishment was recommended by the Commons Committee on Standards?
After receiving Ms Stone’s report the Commons Committee on Standards, made up of a cross-party group of MPs, recommended Mr Paterson serve a 30-day suspension that could trigger a recall petition in his seat.
What does Mr Paterson say?
Mr Paterson continues to deny any wrongdoing, saying he was acting on genuine concerns for public safety.
Ahead of the release of the investigation last week he made an astonishing attack on Ms Stone, claiming her ‘cruel’ probe in to his activities contributed to the death of his wife, Rose, who took her own life last year.
The 65-year-old North Shropshire MP believes the investigation against him was ‘biased’ and ‘an absolute denial of justice’.
Why do Mr Paterson’s supporters think he has been wronged?
Allies of Mr Paterson claim the standards investigation was ‘so amateurish it failed to interview witnesses’.
They claim that he had 17 witnesses ready to give oral evidence on his behalf but complained they were never called. The Standards Committee however, pointed out that each of the 17 had supplied it with comprehensive written statements and ‘did not see what further ‘relevant information could usefully be gleaned by inviting oral evidence from the witnesses concerned’.
Supporters believe the current standards system is flawed and must be overhauled to give MPs the ability to appeal.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis said MPs currently have ‘no effective right of appeal’ because ‘this is a standards system where one person is chief investigator and prosecutor combined’.
Tory MPs want to replace the current standards system with a quasi-judicial process and a ‘proper’ appeal system.
In a round of interviews, Mr Zahawi said creating a system of appeal for suspended MPs should not have been conflated with the Paterson case.
He told Sky News: ‘The Prime Minister has always been very clear that paid lobbying is not allowed.
‘The mistake is the conflation of creating a fairer system with the right of appeal for Parliamentarians to be able to put forward an appeal process.
‘Conflating that with the particular case of Owen Paterson was a mistake and I think the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, came to the House yesterday, upon reflection yes it was a mistake, and I think it was right to come back very quickly to the House and say we need to separate these things out.
‘We should work on a cross-party basis to create a fairer system, I think that’s a good thing.
‘And my appeal to my fellow Parliamentarians from all parties is: let’s come together and create a better system with a right of appeal.’
He told BBC Radio 4 that the shambles should not cast doubt on the Mr Johnson’s judgment.
‘I think actually it says that the Prime Minister, when wanting to be following a process that makes the system fairer… wanted to do that,’ he said.
‘That is absolutely not true, and Kathryn Stone and her duties are the responsibility of the House of Commons, and the Speaker of the House.
‘And I think the important thing to remember is that Parliament as the legislative chamber of our country has absolutely the right to look at and improve the system…’
Mr Zahawi said the issue of the No11 flat had been looked at by Mr Johnson’s own ministerial standards adviser Lord Geidt ‘and the Prime Minister was found not to have broken any ministerial code’.
‘I think it was looked at by Lord Geidt, it’s a ministerial declaration and I think that’s the correct way of doing this. We have very good robust processes, we always want to improve them, but I think that’s the correct way of doing it,’ he said.
Extraordinarily, Mr Zahawi admitted he had not read the standards report on Mr Paterson before the vote.
‘I actually haven’t read the report,’ he said.
Asked how he could have voted on the issue when he had not read the report, he said: ‘I’ve looked at the report, I haven’t gone into the detail.
‘Owen says that much of it is contested, right? I think something like 14 people have sent statements (saying) that it’s contested.’
Later, on Times Radio, he added: ‘So, my understanding is that there was something like 14 statements that have gone in that dispute, some of the evidence in the report, I haven’t read those statements.’
Mr Paterson has said the standards process neglected to take evidence from witnesses who would have supported his cause.
Labour MP Chris Bryant, the chairman of the Committee on Standards, said every MP had been emailed urging them to read the report.
‘I know ministers have a busy life, but I guess you’d hope that the Education Secretary would do his homework,’ he said.
He added: ‘What this really underlines is that it’s best if governments stick out of independent disciplinary processes.
‘I think it’s been a terrible week really for Parliament and an awful lot of reputations have been unnecessarily tarnished.’
Conservative Sir David Lidington, former leader of the House of Commons, said the farce had damaged politicians’ reputation.
‘Clearly, there was a pretty appalling set of misjudgments involved,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘The reputation of the House of Commons as an institution and MPs of all parties will have been damaged by the events of the last 24 hours.’
The former MP also said the affair has ‘weakened the Government’, making it harder for Boris Johnson to win support from backbench MPs on potentially unpopular measures in future.
‘If you ask your troops to march through the lobby on something like this, and which they don’t think is right, and then you U-turn on it, it’s going to be more difficult next time around,’ he said.
Some sources suggested Downing Street is trying to throw Mr Spencer under the bus in order to absolve the PM of responsibility.
‘The chief [whip] only does as he is ordered,’ an ally of Mr Spencer told the Times, while another accused No10 of being ‘spineless’ and attempting to hide its own complicity in the plan.
As the criticism continued to grow, one Cabinet minister said Mr Johnson should have made Mr Paterson ‘turn up and accept his punishment’ rather than put the full might of the Government machine behind him.
Another senior minister said: ‘This was completely avoidable.
‘The problem with Boris is he packs his Cabinet with second-rate people, meaning there is no one to tell him he should take a different course.’
The minister added: ‘It all just looks like we’re back to the 1990s – MPs getting together to support their friends.’
Meanwhile, former chief whip Mark Harper declared: ‘This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as an MP.’
The furious backlash came as:
- The PM was said to have been dismayed by an unrepentant interview given by Mr Paterson in the wake of Wednesday night’s controversial vote;
- Mr Johnson sparked speculation Mr Paterson will be handed a peerage in future by issuing a warm tribute to him – although No 10 said there had been ‘no discussion’ of a seat in the Lords;
- Tory MP Angela Richardson was reinstated as a parliamentary aide to Michael Gove just hours after being sacked for refusing to back the Government in the row;
- Conservative Central Office was preparing for a by-election in Mr Paterson’s North Shropshire constituency where he had a majority of almost 23,000;
- Plans to reform Parliament’s standards system were kicked into the long grass, with the Labour Party saying the idea was ‘dead in the water;
- Labour is accusing Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng of breaking the ministerial code by suggesting the standards commissioner should resign.
One Tory said: ‘Obviously there is anger at the PM, but there is a real feeling the Chief should be considering his position.
‘He laid down a three-line whip, threatened people with having their funding removed, sacked someone and had to reinstate her – all for a stupid vote that had to be abandoned the next day.’ But No 10 yesterday insisted the PM retains ‘full confidence’ in Mr Spencer.
Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said many MPs defending ‘very narrow’ majorities were furious at being ‘dragged into this whole sleaze agenda’.
In the wake of Wednesday night’s vote Mr Paterson had given an unrepentant interview in which he said he ‘wouldn’t hesitate’ to repeat his actions.
But last night, Mr Johnson said he was ‘very sad’ to be losing Mr Paterson, adding: ‘He has had a distinguished career, serving in two cabinet positions, and above all he has been a voice for freedom – for free markets and free trade and free societies – and he was an early and powerful champion of Brexit.’
Labour today moved to kill off rumours than an ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate could fight for Owen Paterson’s seat after a lobbying scandal forced his exit.
The former minister’s resignation as MP for North Shropshire was confirmed this morning as he became ‘Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead’ – the traditional way of quitting the Commons.
Mr Paterson had a majority of nearly 23,000 in 2019, making it one of the safest seats in the country.
Speculation had been swirling that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens could unite behind a single candidate in an effort to overturn the huge margin.
The move would have echoed when Martin Bell, a former BBC war correspondent, challenged Tory incumbent Neil Hamilton for the Conservative stronghold of Tatton in Cheshire in 1997.
The broadcaster, who famously wore a white suit, won on an anti-sleaze ticket with a majority of more than 11,000 after other major parties agreed not to stand.
But a senior Labour source said today: ‘We’re standing.’
Another Labour insider told MailOnline that electoral laws made it ‘almost impossible’ to field a unity candidate.
‘An independent candidate couldn’t get donations or infrastructure from parties so they’d be up against the Tory machine with zero support,’ they said.
Mr Paterson has held the North Shropshire constituency since 1997 and secured 62.7 per cent of the vote in 2019.
Tory Chief Whip Mark Spencer (R) is also under fire, with some Tories saying he should resign over the debacle concerning Owen Paterson
A political fiasco that started over claret and pheasant at the garrick… and ended in humiliation
By ANDREW PIERCE FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Tuesday night at the Garrick, the favoured London watering hole since 1831 of the illustrious denizens of the media, legal, theatrical and political world.
And there, holding court in boisterous fashion was Boris Johnson, totally at ease in the wood-panelled splendour of the private gentlemen’s club, amongst old friends from his days as a journalist.
Boris had arrived back in the capital just hours earlier, having flown in by chartered jet from Glasgow where he has been hosting the world’s statesmen and women at Cop26, while also delivering doomsday predictions about climate change.
Quite how he squared that flight with his final utterances at the UN beanfeast, when he urged the world to stop ‘quilting the earth in an invisible and suffocating blanket of CO2’, is not known. But then Boris had a dinner date and he wasn’t going to miss it.
In the Milne Room, beneath a portrait of AA Milne – the creator of Winnie The Pooh who bequeathed a portion of the rights to his books to the Garrick – Boris joined 30 former leader writers (including three women who are permitted as guests at the club but not as members) from The Daily Telegraph.
This is the newspaper, of course, where Boris made his name as a young reporter who became the scourge of Brussels and EU lunacy, and which later paid him a princely £250,000 a year for a weekly column until he entered the Cabinet.
The group tucked into fish cakes and pheasant followed by chocolate souffle at £85 a head, all washed down with a piquant club Claret.
Owen Paterson, who was suspended from Parliament for lobbying on behalf of two firms which paid him more than £500,000, has resigned from the ‘cruel world of politics’
Having worked the room extensively before dinner, Boris – who resigned his membership of the Garrick a decade ago – was now locked in conversation with his former editor Charles Moore, who was sitting opposite him at the long dining table.
I am told that Owen Paterson’s name was mentioned – and that is no surprise. Moore, recently elevated to the House of Lords, is a friend of 45 years’ standing of Paterson and his late wife Rose (who committed suicide last year), from their time at Cambridge together.
Moore has argued in The Telegraph that Paterson, a fellow Brexiteer, had been unfairly ‘hounded’ by the Parliamentary commissioner Kathryn Stone, who had found he had improperly lobbied on behalf of two firms from whom he had received a combined annual remuneration of more than £100,000. Stone, Moore noted, had absolutely ‘no legal training and it showed’.
Later, Boris, who stayed for almost two hours, made a typically rumbustious speech extolling the virtues of his old newspaper.
The next day he ordered Tory MPs to vote down a 30-day suspension against Paterson that was proposed by the 14-strong, cross-party Commons standards committee, who after their own investigation endorsed Stone’s findings.
The emergence of the Garrick dinner has left many Tory MPs feeling distinctly queasy and deeply suspicious, with one telling me: ‘It feels like this was all stitched up over the port and stilton at the Garrick. It could not be further away from the Red Wall seats in the North we have to hold where this episode will cause us huge damage.’
So exactly how significant was that chat at the Garrick between Boris and his old boss?
It was on Tuesday that the plan to shore up Paterson ahead of the vote, which was partly conceived by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit- supporting Leader of the Commons, began taking shape. It was agreed that the Government would back an amendment by former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom, which would reject the suspension of Paterson.
The amendment would scrap the existing disciplinary system and propose a new committee of MPs – half of whom would come from the Conservative Party with the other half from opposition parties – tasked with rewriting rules for parliamentary standards.
The same day, the Government’s Chief Whip Mark Spencer telephoned John Whittingdale, another Brexiteer, who had been sacked as culture minister in the reshuffle in September. Whittingdale, a friend of Boris’s wife Carrie, had been upset by his dismissal.
Now Spencer was offering him the position of chairman of the new Commons standards committee to be set up after the Leadsom amendment was carried.
‘It was Boris’s idea to give John the job as he felt bad about booting him out in the reshuffle because he was a good minister,’ a source close to No 10 told me.
Whittingdale was surprised to be offered the job as he’s not been a vocal champion of Paterson and they are not close. In fact, for the last ten days Whittingdale has been isolating after contracting Covid and was not able to vote on the suspension on Wednesday.
Pictured: The Garrick Club – the favoured London watering hole since 1831 of the illustrious denizens of the media, legal, theatrical and political world
But when he agreed to take the position, he assumed that the Tories had sought and secured co-operation from Labour and other opposition MPs. He could not have been more wrong.
Neither Rees-Mogg nor Spencer had nailed down a concrete agreement with opposition parties to serve on the new committee. The plan was doomed from the start as parliamentary committees have to be cross-party.
That failure was yet to emerge, however, when the Tory whips decided on Wednesday morning that they would ramp up the pressure on their MPs by decreeing there would be a three-line Whip, meaning every Tory MP who was in the Commons who didn’t vote in favour of the amendment and against the Paterson suspension would find themselves in trouble.
Waverers were warned they would receive less financial aid at the next general election unless they toed the line. ‘It was really heavy duty,’ said one MP.
Some MPs believe it was Moore’s intervention at the Garrick that persuaded Boris to get tough. But it was also another serious error of judgment. The whips had failed to spot the growing unease on their own side at the perception the Leadsom amendment would be seen as the Government changing the rules to benefit Paterson – even though his suspension had been unanimously agreed by the standards committee which included four Tory MPs (one of whom – Sir Bernard Jenkin – had recused himself due to his close friendship with Paterson).
Even Tory MPs willing to back the vote recognised that the Paterson issue was turning into a public relations disaster. Jenkin told the BBC on Wednesday that the optics ‘look terrible’ but insisted there is ‘no alternative’.
Before the vote in the Commons, Chris Bryant, the Labour chairman of the standards committee, delivered a measured and persuasive speech. ‘He argued his corner well,’ conceded one Cabinet minister. ‘I knew then it was not going to end well.’
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, who responded for the Government, and Dame Andrea Leadsom, who tabled the amendment, were struggling to win over their own side, let alone opposition MPs.
Even Tory MPs willing to back the vote to block the suspension of Paterson recognised that the issue was turning into a public relations disaster. Sir Bernard Jenkin (pictured) told the BBC on Wednesday that the optics ‘look terrible’ but insisted there is ‘no alternative’.
When the result of the vote was announced, and the Government had squeaked home with a majority of 18, Tory MPs sat in stony silence as even usually mild-mannered Labour MPs bellowed ‘shame, shame’.
As my colleague Henry Deedes noted yesterday, the 250 Tory MPs who voted for the amendment looked ashamed. One of those who abstained, Angela Richardson, parliamentary private secretary to Housing Secretary Michael Gove, was sacked by the PM.
After the vote, a triumphant Paterson took to the airwaves and made matters even worse by telling Channel 4 News he had done nothing wrong. ‘I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again tomorrow, absolutely no question,’ he said.
In No 10, they were aghast. The PM and his aides had been assured that Paterson would be conciliatory – not confrontational and unrepentant. It was the final straw for opposition MPs who said they would they would have nothing to do with the new committee.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: ‘The Tories voted to give a green light to corruption. Labour will not be taking any part in this sham process or any corrupt committee.’
Another minister told me: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was agreeing with Angela Rayner for the first time in my life.’ By yesterday’s 8.30am strategy meeting at No 10, it was obvious the game was up.
And when Lord Evans of Weardale, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, rewrote his long-planned speech to the Institute of Government yesterday to say the Tory-led review into the disciplinary process for MPs was ‘deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy’, it all fell apart.
Here was the PM’s own adviser on ethics publicly condemning the move as a ‘very serious and damaging moment for Parliament’.
So it was that Rees-Mogg confirmed at the No 10 meeting that the new committee was dead in the water.
He was one of the key architects of the plan and was dispatched to announce the screeching and humiliating U-turn.
Angela Richardson, who had been sacked as Gove’s aide 14 hours earlier, was reinstated.
Other ministerial aides, who had been warned their careers were over unless they voted for the amendment, were incensed.
As for Owen Paterson, no one even bothered to tell him about the U-turn. He was in a supermarket when he was telephoned by a BBC journalist, who broke it to him that the Government had abandoned him.
Owen Paterson (C) resigned as MP for North Shropshire following backlash over sleaze. It was revealed that Paterson had broken parliamentary standards by lobbying on behalf of companies that had paid him more than half a million pounds
Paterson realised he was trapped. The U-turn meant he was now the new poster boy for Tory sleaze. By 11am yesterday he was consulting friends and family about whether to quit altogether. His departure was the final act in what was a political farce from beginning to end.
Perhaps if Boris had bothered to inform himself of the findings of the standards committee – which in its 169-page report found Paterson was guilty of an ‘egregious’ breach of the MPs code – the Government would not be in such a mess.
Rees-Mogg is being blamed for the huge strategic error of not anticipating that the opposition parties would boycott the new committee and expose it as a Tory-only sham.
Spencer is also at fault for his bull in a china shop approach to the vote.
But at the centre of it all is Boris, who many MPs believe was so determined to wreak revenge on the Kathryn Stone – after she found that he himself had broken the ministerial code over his free holiday to Mustique last year – that he became blind and deaf to the evidence against Paterson. This controversy is merely the latest in a string of self-inflicted own goals which is leading many to ask exactly who is in charge in No 10?
Whether it was Boris’s refusal to say who initially paid for a lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and failure to make provision for the evacuation of brave interpreters, or the controversy over the Northern Ireland border, the charge sheet is lengthening.
When Tony Blair was PM, he had a strong and long-serving kitchen cabinet. Jonathan Powell, an experienced diplomat, was his chief of staff from 1994 until the day he left Downing Street in 2007.
Likewise Anji Hunter, a friend from his teenage years, was his director of government relations and his influential gatekeeper. Boris Johnson has no such equivalents. He is missing aides of the calibre of Lord (Eddie) Lister, now 72, who was his trusted consigliere from his days as London mayor. Lister quit as chief of staff this year. James Slack, his respected former communications chief, has left to join The Sun. Meanwhile, Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s Chief of Staff, are new into their jobs and struggling to impose order.
So the PM is left with what Tory insiders call FoCs, Friends of Carrie – his influential wife. But they have little loyalty to the PM himself.
One Tory grandee says of recent criticism of Johnson’s governing style: ‘It’s a bit like his marital infidelity – it’s in the price. A lack of attention to detail is expected. But I tell you this latest shambles is one of the worst. If and when Boris’s popularity in the country goes – and it might – a few more episodes like this and he will be out.’