“It’s time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting responsibility for yourself and your family,” John Major told the 1993 Conservative Party conference. He would bitterly regret those words as the Tories were hit by a tsunami of sleaze.
Several Conservative backbenchers were caught accepting cash for asking parliamentary questions. Others were caught having extra-marital affairs.
Even before the “back to basics” speech David Mellor had resigned as national heritage secretary over a fling with an actress. Norman Lamont, the chancellor, was found to be renting his basement flat in London to a “sex therapist”. Steven Norris, a transport minister, was revealed to be having affairs with three women simultaneously, prompting the headline “Yes, Yes, Yes Minister!!!!”. Stephen Milligan, a backbencher, was found dead in his flat with an orange in his mouth, and wearing only a pair of women’s stockings — a victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Jonathan Aitken, chief secretary to the Treasury, sued the Guardian for alleging that he had improper dealings with prominent Saudis. He lost, and was jailed for perjury.
A quarter of a century on, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are staging a repeat performance of this sleaze fest.
On Saturday (30 April) Neil Parish resigned as MP for Tiverton and Honiton for watching porn on his mobile phone in the Commons chamber. In the same month Imran Ahmad Khan resigned as MP for Wakefield after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy and David Warburton, MP for Somerton and Frome, had the whip suspended following allegations of sexual harassment and cocaine use.
Then there are other forms of impropriety. A High Court judge ruled in April that Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, lied under oath in a dispute about his family’s £27 million business. Owen Paterson was forced to resign as MP for North Shropshire in November last year for lobbying ministers on behalf of companies that were paying him.
The roll call of shame goes on. Rob Roberts, MP for Delyn who has since had the whip removed, sent sexually suggestive messages to two members of his staff. Andrew Griffiths, formerly MP for Burton, was found by a family court judge in December 2021 to have raped his sleeping wife. And these are unlikely to be the last such scandals involving Tory MPs. As many as 56 MPs of all parties, including three cabinet ministers, have reportedly been referred to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme for alleged sexual misconduct.
There is an obvious similarity with Major’s Conservatives in the 1990s. Then, as now, the party had been in power for more than a decade, and that had bred arrogance. At the best of times the Tories consider themselves the natural party of government and entitled to power, while Labour considers itself lucky to govern.
But there is an obvious difference, too. Major was a decent, honest man who was not morally censorious but did try to lead by example (his own affair with Edwina Currie in the 1980s did not become public knowledge until 2002). He sought to crack down on misconduct by creating the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which expected holders of public office to observe seven principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Johnson, by contrast, sets the worst possible example. He more than anyone has created the contempt for ethical standards, and the culture of impunity, that is seemingly now so rife in his party. As Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said on Sunday: “A fish rots from the head.”
Johnson is the first Prime Minister in British history to be fined for a criminal act committed while in office, and faces several more fines over partygate. His wife, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and at least 50 of his Downing Street aides have also been fined.
He has repeatedly shown disdain for the rule of law, whether by seeking to prorogue parliament, threatening unilaterally to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement, or violating his own Covid rules.
He was elected on the lie that Brexit would be good for Britain, routinely lies to parliament and the country, and regularly instructs ministers to go on to the airwaves and lie on his behalf.
He has presided over what might euphemistically be called widespread mismanagement of taxpayers’ money, dispersing billions of pounds’ worth of Covid contracts to insiders regardless of their qualifications or ability to deliver.
He has flirted with corruption by giving peerages to donors and cronies, and accepting luxury holidays and a refurbishment of his Downing Street flat from supporters. As Mayor of London he channelled public money to Jennifer Arcuri, who alleges that they were having a relationship.
Johnson has refused to resign, or to be properly held to account, for any of the above. Indeed, he has been so contemptuous of the normal standards of prime ministerial conduct that Peter Hennessy, the distinguished constitutional historian, recently labelled him “the greatest debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life”.
Our rogue prime minister cannot crack down on misconduct within his party because he is guilty of so much of it himself. He instead does precisely the opposite. Having expelled many good, honest MPs from the parliamentary party because they opposed Brexit, he goes out of his way to protect loyal Leavers when they transgress.
Thus he sought to change parliament’s disciplinary procedures to save Paterson. He refused to sanction Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, for bullying her civil servants. He backed Dominic Cummings when he decamped to Durham in a blatant breach of Covid regulations. He initially sought to save Matt Hancock’s job when the Health Secretary was filmed kissing a colleague with whom he was having an affair, breaking Covid rules. He did nothing when Robert Jenrick, as Housing Secretary, unlawfully expedited a planning decision that saved Richard Desmond, a Tory donor, £45 million in local taxes.
The Tories do not have a monopoly on sleaze, and in any walk of life there are invariably some “bad apples”, but even by the miserable standards of the early 1990s Johnson and his parliamentary party do appear uniquely rotten.
As I’ve written before, the great divide in British politics is no longer between left and right, or Leavers and Remainers, but between decency and indecency, integrity and dishonesty, respect for democratic norms and trashing them. Should Johnson somehow manage to survive in office, and win the next general election, Britain would be well on the way to becoming a banana republic.