Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions was remarkable for the intensity of the ill-tempered exchanges between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer as they clashed over standards in public life. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle intervened a number of times to rein in Johnson’s attacks on Starmer, telling him: “You may be the prime minister of the country but in this place, I’m in charge.”
But the most disconcerting sign for the prime minister was how sparsely populated the Conservative benches were behind him and how few voices were raised in support of him. Over the past two weeks he has alienated every section of his own party and every step he has taken to try to limit the damage has only served to make things worse.
At a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers on Wednesday night, Johnson admitted that he was to blame for the mishandling of the Owen Paterson affair that set off a calamitous cascade of events.
“On a clear road I crashed the car into a ditch,” he is reported to have told them.
His attempt to save Paterson by overhauling the system that found him guilty of paid advocacy has put the outside earnings of all MPs under scrutiny. This matters more to Conservatives, one in four of whom have second jobs and many of whom view an MP’s basic salary of £82,000 as inadequate.
In an attempt to pre-empt Labour, Johnson surprised his own MPs by proposing a ban on paid political consulting and a limit on how much time they could spend on second jobs. Before they started debating the proposals on Wednesday, it was clear to everyone at Westminster that the government had not thought through the details but had been panicked into the initiative.
Some Conservatives fear that by the time new rules are agreed by the cross-party standards committee, they will be tougher than Johnson’s proposals. Others, particularly those who hold marginal seats won from Labour in 2019, are worried that the debate on standards will keep the issue of Tory sleaze in the headlines for months.
One of the firms Paterson worked for was Randox, which won contracts worth £600 million during the coronavirus pandemic. Labour is now demanding full details of how Randox won the contracts but the government said on Wednesday it could not find a minute of a call between the company and a health minister.
Labour plans to hammer away at the government over the coming weeks with questions about corruption, linking them to Johnson’s own trustworthiness. Most Conservative MPs still believe that the prime minister is on balance an electoral asset but the moment that calculation changes, the party is likely to deploy the same ruthlessness towards him that it has shown to his predecessors.