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  1. Politics
29 December 2021

U is for U-turn: Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson and the reversal that unleashed a sleaze scandal

Tory MPs were marched up the hill and back down again when the government tried to overthrow the standards process to protect one of their own.

By Anoosh Chakelian

First, an admission. Committed readers may notice that U was for U-turn in the New Statesman’s 2020 A-Z too. But we promise this isn’t just laziness on our part: the UK government is still performing U-eys in the middle of the motorway a year on. In 2020, the government infuriated its own MPs and confused voters by screeching into reverse on matters ranging from free school meals over the holidays (twice) to England’s unjust exam result algorithm to housebuilding plans.

As R&B Noughties king Usher put it: “It’s not hard to learn… it’s called the U-turn” – and No 10 has clearly learned it. In November it performed the mother of all U-turns, when it backtracked on its unfathomable decision to overhaul the parliamentary standards process which had ruled one of the governing party’s MPs, Owen Paterson, should face a 30-day suspension for “serious breaches” of lobbying rules. Tory MPs were marched through the lobby to vote against the checks and balances designed to police politicians’ conduct, only for the government to change its mind the next day.

[see also: Chris Bryant interview: “Labour should put the ministerial code into law”]

In the end Paterson resigned, but the damage had already been done. Every day, a new story on the extra earnings and activities of (mainly Tory) MPs dominated the headlines and reinforced an image of “sleaze” within a party already accused of cronyism in the awarding of Covid-related contracts during the pandemic. It appeared to hit the Conservatives’ hitherto solid poll position, and was followed by further scandals surrounding No 10 over claims its staff held a Christmas party. Perhaps Noughties R&B was playing.

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