After howls of dismay from Tory MPs and some of the most vitriolic front-page newspaper coverage he’s received in months, Boris Johnson has abandoned his plan to rip up parliament’s anti-corruption rules.
The question is: how much damage has the fiasco done to the reputation of his government – and parliament more generally – and to the Prime Minister’s own standing among Conservative MPs?
On Thursday 4 November, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, confirmed ministers will pause moves to abolish the standards procedures that the former cabinet minister Owen Paterson was found to have broken by breaching lobbying rules over paid consultancy work. The announcement came less than a day after Johnson ordered his MPs to back the overhaul of the rules, a decision widely condemned by the press, on social media and among MPs of all parties.
The plan “created a certain amount of controversy”, Rees-Mogg told the Commons. “I fear last night’s debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken.”
He said he now hopes to work on a cross-party basis to design an improved standards procedure and will bring forward new plans. Paterson, temporarily off the hook, now appears to be back on it, facing a potential suspension from the Commons.
Many Conservatives will be relieved that No 10 has dropped its plan, but plenty of damage has been done already. Peter Bone said his offices had been ransacked while Nigel Mills received abusive messages from constituents even though he voted against Johnson’s orders.
Mills was among the Tory MPs who told the New Statesman on Wednesday that Johnson’s plan – which effectively paused Paterson’s punishment – was hugely damaging to the reputation of MPs and made them appear corrupt.
Even though Johnson has dropped the idea, he may find the speed with which he pulled the U-turn to be as much of a hindrance as a help.
“This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a member of parliament,” tweeted the former chief whip Mark Harper, who was among those who voted against Johnson’s orders. “My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this. This must not happen again.”
The risk for Johnson is that his rapid reversal makes him look not only incompetent but also weak.