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10 November 2021

What Boris Johnson’s insistence that the UK is not a “corrupt country” reveals

The UK Prime Minister likely fears the fallout from the Owen Paterson fiasco could damage his reputation internationally.

By Tim Ross

It was meant to be a press conference to chivvy the world’s governments into action on combating climate change, but Boris Johnson was again dogged by questions over his government’s record on sleaze.

At one point, the British Prime Minister even felt it necessary to tell the world that the UK is not a “corrupt country”, as he spoke to international media in Glasgow for the United Nations’s Cop26 climate summit.

It must have been an uncomfortable moment for a politician who has been working towards making Cop26 the centrepiece of the UK’s “year of leadership” on the world stage.

[See also: Britannia Chained: will Boris Johnson’s Global Britain ever escape the shackles of Brexit? – New Statesman]

“I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, nor do I believe that our institutions are corrupt,” he said. “It is very important to say that.”

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The fact that it needed saying at all is a signal of how low public opinion of politicians may have fallen – and perhaps also an indication that Johnson worries the fallout from the Owen Paterson fiasco could damage his reputation internationally and potentially undermine his goals for Cop26.

For the past week, Johnson has been battling allegations that he tried to change the rules on enforcing standards of ethical behaviour in parliament to get his Tory party colleague Paterson off the hook. That unleashed a wave of political pain, public dismay and fresh scrutiny of the behaviour of MPs, their lobbying activities and second jobs.

Now the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox is in the firing line, over allegations that he’d been paid large legal fees by the British Virgin Islands instead of spending time working as a constituency MP.

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Johnson did not want to get into Cox’s case, claiming it would not be appropriate to talk about individuals, without offering further reasons for this silence. But he did say that any MP who has broken the rules should face sanctions and “be punished”.

The issue is particularly awkward for Johnson. He has been the subject of repeated allegations of dubious dealings, ranging from the financing of his own holiday in Spain to the funding of a refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. Again on Wednesday (10 November) he insisted all his records and declarations of outside interests have been completed in accordance with the correct procedures.

But in truth he’s never been a stickler for the rules, or for being a conventional politician, and that is part of his appeal for voters. They don’t want or expect him to be the same kind of slick operator that his predecessors aimed to be. Their tolerance for his misdemeanours is, therefore, high.

The biggest risk for Johnson in all this is that he becomes associated with a wave of other allegations and scandals, as the head of a party and a government presiding over a general culture of political “sleaze”. In the end, other people might do Johnson more damage than he does himself.

[See also: The Owen Paterson fiasco has reminded Westminster that Boris Johnson is mortal]