MPs mocked Boris Johnson last night by comparing him to Monty Python’s cowardly knight ‘Brave Sir Robin’ – who infamously fled rather than faces foes in battle – after the Prime Minister ducked away from a sleaze debate in the Commons.
The PM was lambasted by Opposition politicians as the Commons held an emergency debate in the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal – which Mr Johnson avoided by saying he could not get back from a visit to Northumberland in time.
MPs also branded the Prime Minister a ‘tin-pot dictator’ and accused him of behaving like Vladimir Putin over his reaction to sleaze – as the Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle warned that Parliament’s standards commissioner must not be publicly undermined.
The Prime Minister had earlier attempted to bat away criticism for failing to attend the debate, refusing to apologise and claiming there is ‘not much more to say’ about the Paterson case.
Many Tory MPs followed his example with only around 50 – just one in seven of the total – present in the Commons for the debate.
But of one of those who did take part, former chief whip Mark Harper, slammed the PM for not taking part.
Mr Harper, who voted against the Government to oppose easing sanctions on Mr Paterson last week, said that as ‘team captain’ Mr Johnson should have been present tonight to apologise for last week’s vote, adding: ‘That’s the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership.’
Anger turned to derision during the debate, with SNP politician Peter Wishart comparing Mr Johnson to ‘Brave Sir Robin’, the cowardly knight in the comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
He said: ‘It should be [Boris Johnson] in this debate. It was him who brought that grubby motion to the debate last Wednesday. It was him who defended it to the highest hilt… He should be standing here defending the Government’s actions and telling us what he’s going to do.
‘Now he always likes to remind me of battles of past, can I say to him today he’s like the Brave Sir Robin from Monty Python from the Holy Grail bravely running away from doing his duty at the dispatch box,’ he added, as the Commons erupted in laughter, with even Jacob Rees-Mogg smiling at the jibe.
Speaker Mr Hoyle opened the session by warning that Mr Johnson’s abortive bid to save ally Owen Paterson from lobbying punishment had been highly damaging to parliament’s reputation.
Sir Lindsay warned that everyone must stop ‘political sniping’ and work across parties to clear up this ‘mess’. And in an apparent jibe at ministers, he defended watchdog Kathryn Stone – who has been subjected to death threats after the row. ‘Please do not criticise the commissioner for standards who is doing the job that we have appointed her to do.’
Despite the entreaties from the Speaker, one Labour MP immediately swiped that Mr Johnson had acted like a ‘tin-pot dictator’. And Lib Dem Wendy Chamberlain said events had been more reminiscent of the ‘Duma in Moscow’ than Westminster.
The blustering came as an Ipsos MORI poll for the Standard gave the latest indication that the party has taken a huge hit, even though ministers have dismissed the row as a ‘storm in a teacup’.
Although much of the fieldwork was carried out before the dramatic vote last Wednesday, the Tories were down four points since September on 35 per cent.
Crucially that was below Labour, with Keir Starmer’s party on 36 per cent support. It is the first time in a year that Labour has been ahead with the pollster.
Sir Keir seized on Mr Johnson’s absence, accusing him of ‘corruption’, of ‘damaging democracy’ and lacking ‘the decency either to defend or apologise for his actions’.
‘His concern as always is self-preservation, not the national interest,’ he said.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle opened the session by warning that Mr Johnson’s abortive bid to save ally Owen Paterson from lobbying punishment had been highly damaging to parliament’s reputation
Mr Johnson chatted to patients at Hexham Hospital during his visit yesterday
Many Tory MPs followed his example with around 50 – just one in seven of the total – present in the Commons for the debate.
Lib Dem Wendy Chamberlain (right) said events had been more reminiscent of the ‘Duma in Moscow’ than Westminster. Left, Owen Paterson (file picture)
Boris Johnson insisted he is unable to get back from a ‘long-planned’ visit to the North East in time for the Commons debate on his abortive bid to save his ally from lobbying punishment
An Ipsos MORI poll for the Evening Standard showed that the Tories have lost their lead and slipped behind Labour
It is the first time in around a year that the pollster has shown a lead for Labour
Tory Geoffrey Cox’s £1m legal earnings are condemned by Labour
MPs traded blows about their second jobs – with Tory Geoffrey Cox under fire for his extraordinary £1million a year legal earnings.
The PM said this morning that he expected outside income for MPs to be ‘looked at’ – with the standards committee set to make recommendations before Christmas.
Labour is pushing for paid directorships and consultancy roles to be banned – although Keir Starmer says nurses and other professions should be allowed to continue.
But the Tories have pointed out that a number of Opposition MPs also have some outside earnings alongside their salaries of around £82,000 a year.
Mr Cox, an eminent QC, has long been one of the biggest earners in the Commons.
In the latest register of interest, the Torridge and West Devon MP revealed that from this month he is receiving £400,000 a year plus VAT for 41 hours’ work a month as Consultant Global Counsel to Withers LLP.
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay, representing the government in lieu of Mr Johnson, voiced ‘regret’ for the ‘mistake’ that was made in overturning the standards committee report last week.
The PM insisted he was unable to get back from a ‘long-planned’ visit to the North East in time for the Commons debate. No10 blamed the fact he is travelling by train – even though it did not start until around after 4pm.
However, witnesses spotted the PM on a train that arrived at London King’s Cross station less than half an hour into the Commons debate, which started at 4.07pm, reports The Mirror.
‘I don’t think there is much more to be said about that particular case,’ he told reporters in a scratchy interview during which he constantly tried to change the subject to Covid.
The debate dodge has echoes of Mr Johnson’s decision when Foreign Secretary to make a whistlestop visit to Afghanistan on the day of the crunch vote on expanding Heathrow Airport – something he might otherwise have needed to resign to oppose.
Mr Johnson also came under fire from his own side for continuing to seek reform of the standards system separate from Mr Paterson’s case. Former minister Peter Bottomley, the longest-serving MP in the Commons, said: ‘The current system can work if we make it work.’
Ms Chamberlain, who secured the emergency debate, said: ‘This is almost the kind of behaviour we would expect to see in the Duma in Moscow, National People’s Congress in Beijing, not in the House of Commons.
‘Previous prime ministers and previous governments have all had their failings, but it’s a long time since we have seen these issues and the absolute lack of resolve to do anything about it.
‘They say a fish rots from the head down, and I’m disappointed to see that the Prime Minister has chosen not to turn up to today to answer questions, given that the leader of the opposition is in his place.
‘You can’t help but feel that he thinks the rules don’t apply to him.’
Intervening, Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) branded the Prime Minister a ‘tin-pot dictator who himself is now mired in sleaze’.
His words prompted the a rebuke from the Speaker, who said: ‘Please moderate language, moderate thoughts, let’s do this right.’
In a starkly different tone to that adopted by Mr Johnson, Mr Barclay said he and his colleagues on the Government frontbench ‘regret’ the ‘mistake’ they made last week.
He told MPs: ‘I’d like, first and foremost, to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week.
‘We recognise there are concerns across the House over the standards system and also the process by which possible breaches of the code of conduct are investigated.
‘Yet whilst sincerely held concerns clearly warrant further attention, the manner in which the Government approached last week’s debate conflated them with the response to an individual case.
‘This House shares a collective interest in ensuring that the code of conduct reflects and fosters the highest standards of public life.’
The premier has been left fighting on multiple fronts after he was accused of targeting standards commissioner Kathryn Stone following a series of clashes.
He could still face a Commons investigation into the funding of his ‘Wallpapergate’ renovation of the No11 residence.
Minister defends ‘rich mix’ in the House of Lords amid sleaze outcry
Cabinet ministers defended the way seats in the House of Lords are dished out amid a sleaze row involving wealthy Tory donors.
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan praised the ‘rich mix’ of backgrounds in the upper chamber after claims were made about access for senior party figures.
A Sunday Times report yesterday showed 15 of the last 16 Conservative Party treasurers have been offered a seat in the Lords, having each donated more than £3 million to the party.
The Tories have denied any link between the donations and the nominations to sit in the Lords, in the latest twist in ongoing allegations of sleaze in Parliament.
On Monday, Ms Trevelyan said the chamber had a ‘rich mix which brings a real depth of voices to our political parties across the piste.
And Mr Johnson has also refused to declare his recent ‘freebie’ holiday to Spain on the parliamentary register – instead unusually using the ministerial interests list, which meant he did not have to disclose the value of the gift.
In the three-hour Commons debate this afternoon, MPs are calling on Mr Johnson categorically to rule out a peerage for Mr Paterson and to launch an investigation into £600million of Covid contracts awarded to one of the firms he worked for.
But speaking to broadcasters on a visit to a hospital in Hexham earlier, the PM confirmed he will not be there in person.
‘What we’ve got to make sure is that we take all this very, very seriously and that we get it right,’ he said.
‘There’s a debate today, unfortunately I can’t be there because I had a long-standing engagement up here.’
The PM said opposition parties wanted to focus on ‘a particular case, a particular MP who suffered a serious personal tragedy, and who’s now resigned’.
He said: ‘I don’t think there’s much more to be said about that particular case, I really don’t, but what we do need to do is look also at the process, and that is what we were trying to do last week.’
He said he hoped there would be ‘cross-party agreement on a way forward, including an appeals process’.
‘I have the utmost respect for the Speaker and his general desire to produce a cross-party outcome, cross-party reform of the system, which is what we were trying to achieve last week,’ he said.
Asked if MPs should be banned from taking second jobs, Mr Johnson said: ‘All those kind of things are issues that the Speaker’s panel – whatever he is going to set up – will have a look at.’
Vandals graffiti ‘corrupt scum’ in red paint across Tory Paterson supporter’s office
Vandals have daubed graffiti across the constituency office of a North Wales Tory MP after he voted to stop Owen Paterson from being suspended.
The words ‘corrupt scum’ have been spray-painted in red across the windows outside the building on Princes Drive, Colwyn Bay, where Clwyd West MP David Jones is based.
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson whipped his MPs to support an amendment not to suspend North Shropshire Tory, Owen Paterson, after he was found guilty of paid lobbying by a standards watchdog.
Mr Jones, from Rhos on Sea, who has represented Clwyd West since 2005, voted in favour of putting aside Paterson’s suspension and reviewing the standards system.
The graffiti attack on Mr Jones’ offices also damaged a grief counselling charity, Cruse Bereavement, which is next door. Mr Jones declined to comment.
He added: ‘If there is anything positive to come out of the whole thing, it is that, as far as I can make out, the Speaker is determined to try to move us all forward with a system whereby we have a cross-party approach, which is what we were trying achieve last week.’
Pressed on whether Mr Paterson could be in line for a peerage, he said: ‘There has been absolutely no discussion of that.’
No10 said the premier is travelling by train. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay will represent the government instead.
Reminded that Mr Johnson had flown back from the COP26 summit last week apparently in order to attend a social dinner, the spokesman said: ‘I gave you the reason for that flight before.’
He added: ‘We think the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, whose department is the lead on this area, is the right person to lead (the debate).’
Labour MP Catherin McKinnell was among those deriding Mr Johnson’s inability to make the 300-mile trip from Hexham in time.
‘As someone who travels regularly up & down the country from the North East to represent my constituents in Parliament (without ever using a private jet) that sounds like a very lame excuse to me – more like a PM avoiding scrutiny of the sleaze his Party & Government are mired in,’ she tweeted.
Environment Secretary George Eustice inflamed Tory fury yesterday by claiming on Sky News that the row over Mr Paterson was a ‘storm in a teacup’.
The minister’s comments were branded ‘unhelpful’ and ‘complete nonsense’ in a sign of the anger on the Conservative Party benches.
Tory former minister Tobias Ellwood also underlined how serious the row was, telling the BBC: ‘We should not deny that this was a dark week for British democracy.’
MPs could be banned from taking second jobs
MPs could be banned from taking up positions as consultants outside their parliamentary duties after it emerged this week that Tory MP Owen Paterson had lobbied the government on behalf of two companies he worked for.
Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is expected to put forward a proposal to review the House of Commons’ standards procedures which may prevent MPs for offering consulting services to earn extra cash amid the parliamentary debate over the Paterson scandal.
An investigation led by the standards commissioner Kathryn Stone said Paterson had broken Commons rules by lobbying for two firms that paid him £500,000, and he resigned from his position on Thursday after a botched plan concocted by the Prime Minister to block his suspension from Parliament buckled under a torrent of criticism.
Despite his resignation, Paterson has vehemently denied any wrong-doing, saying he was acting in the public interest and protesting that the procedural route to the findings against him were against due process by not affording sufficient means of appeal.
Dozens of MPs are being paid tens of thousands of pounds a year to act as consultants and advisers for a range of companies, with some receiving many times their yearly parliamentary salary of £81,932 according to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
There are no rules against MPs being paid for advising external businesses provided they record it in their register of interests, but they must not lobby the Government on behalf of those businesses.
Sir Keir will push Mr Johnson to ‘commit to a full, transparent investigation into the more than £600million of taxpayer money handed without competition or tender to Randox’, one of the firms Mr Paterson worked for.
A Downing Street source last night said a peerage was ‘not on the cards’ for Mr Paterson, after Mr Eustice earlier insisted it was ‘highly unlikely’.
And a close friend of Mr Paterson said a peerage had not been ‘mentioned, offered or sought’. They insisted that he did not plan to apply for a Commons pass, even though he is eligible for one as a former MP.
Sent out to bat for the government this morning, Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said she thought Mr Johnson would merely watch the Commons debate on TV on while he worked in his office.
She also appeared to signal a truce in the campaign against Ms Stone, insisting she will remain in the key post.
Ms Trevelyan said she did not know for certain whether the PM would be there, but told Sky News: ‘My opinion would be that no, he shouldn’t be there, he will no doubt – as we all do – have the House of Commons on in his office as he’s dealing with many, many other issues that only a Prime Minister that can deal with.
‘He will get a briefing of the key issues raised by colleagues from across the House later on, I believe that the Leader and other ministers will be well placed to take the despatch box this afternoon.’
Ms Trevelyan said she had ‘no doubt’ Ms Stone will stay in her job – despite fellow Cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng suggesting last week she would have to quit.
She said Ms Stone was ‘independently appointed’, adding: ‘She will continue to do her job and I’m (in) no doubt she will.’
Ms Trevelyan suggested the issue of second jobs for MPs should be ‘looked at again’.
She said: ‘I think the question of whether MPs having jobs that involve lobbying, I think, perhaps should be looked at again.
‘Across the board, I don’t think we should have a removal of the ability to maintain or have a second job because it brings a richness to our role as Members of Parliament as well as the work we do day to day with our constituents.’
Ms Trevelyan said: ‘Speaking as a woman who has also had terrible death threats, it is incredibly hard and we have to be very resilient these days, particularly as women in public life, and it is very hard and it is always unacceptable.
Labour MP Catherin McKinnell was among those deriding Mr Johnson’s inability to make the 300-mile trip from Hexham in time
She added: ‘I hope that, obviously, Kathryn has the support that she needs through this but this is something that comes at many women, we’ve heard Angela Rayner has been under attack … whether or not how she speaks her mind is her own choice, but it is always unacceptable for there to be death threats.
‘Following the tragic, ghastly death of my colleague David Amess just a few weeks ago, we continue to know that we have to be incredibly resilient as politicians and people in public life.
‘This is not how we want our country to be and we need to all work forward to make sure that the commentary is considered and carefully done, and that we can all do our jobs across the piste in an environment of safety.’
Meanwhile, the Commons standards committee has revealed it could conclude its own inquiry into the conduct rules and MPs’ second jobs before Christmas – potentially recommending a ban on consultancy work.
Chairman Chris Bryant, a Labour MP, claimed there had been an attempt to ‘intimidate’ Ms Stone and the government should have kept its ‘grubby mitts’ off the process.
Mr Paterson stepped down as an MP last week after ministers were forced to abandon efforts to save him.
Mr Johnson dropped a bid to prevent Mr Paterson being suspended from Parliament for lobbying on behalf of two firms which paid him more than £500,000.
He resigned hours later, saying he wanted to leave behind the ‘cruel world of politics’.
It has emerged Mr Paterson, a former Cabinet minister, will be able to retain access to the Commons as he is entitled to apply for a so-called ‘category X’ pass for former parliamentarians.
Some 283 ex-MPs possess the cards which give them continued entry, including to Parliament’s restaurants and bars, without being required to register their financial interests as sitting MPs and peers must. But they are barred from lobbying under Commons rules.
Current passholders include Sir Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary who is deputy chairman of an oil firm, Michael Dugher, a former Labour MP who is chief executive of the gambling industry body the Betting and Gaming Council, and Sir Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister who works at Facebook.
The scale of the damage was underlined yesterday with an Opinium poll for the Observer putting the Tories on 37 per cent, down three points on last week
Settling old scores? PM’s years of clashes with sleaze watchdog Kathryn Stone
The debacle over the Owen Paterson report was far from the first time Boris Johnson has clashed with Commons standards commissioner Kathryn Stone.
And their relationship is unlikely to get easier, as he could face another probe by the watchdog into the ‘Wallpapergate’ controversy over refurbishment of his grace-and-favour flat – as well as his refusal to declare his recent ‘freebie’ Marbella holiday on the parliamentary register .
Ms Stone has previously castigated the Prime Minister over a lavish £15,000 Caribbean holiday funded by Tory donors.
But he was saved from punishment – which could have included being the first serving premier to be suspended from the Commons, by MPs who overturned her ruling.
She has also pulled him up over an ‘over-casual attitude’ to declaring his own personal financial interests to Parliament, including a six-figure stake in an English country mansion.
Mr Johnson was dramatically cleared in the summer of breaking Commons rules over a ‘freebie’ trip to the millionaire’s playground of Mustique with Carrie – despite Ms Stone condemning his behaviour and the ‘unusual’ arrangements.
The cross-party Standards Committee found the PM had made an ‘accurate and complete’ declaration about the holiday in December 2019, saying it was a donation from Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross even though the couple did not stay in his villa.
The committee – chaired by Labour MP Chris Bryant – overruled Ms Stone after she concluded that Mr Johnson did breach the Code of Conduct for MPs during a 15-month wrangle after initially failing to provide a full explanation, slamming him for ‘not showing the accountability required of those in public life’.
The report also suggested that the premier himself did not know exactly how the jaunt was being funded until after he arrived on Mustique and realised he was not staying in Mr Ross’s own property.
Ms Stone has revealed she will consider whether to launch an investigation into Mr Johnson’s conduct when Tory donors initially part-funded the lavish overhaul of his residence above No11 Downing Street.
A decision will be made once the ongoing Electoral Commission probe is complete.
Mr Johnson is also facing a backlash over refusing to declare his recent holiday to Lord Goldsmith’s luxury villa near Marbella on the Commons register.
The decision to use the ministerial register, which means he does not have to disclose the value of the gift, could be a further flashpoint with Ms Stone.
One Commons source told MailOnline that as the villa is owned by the Goldsmith family it cannot be treated solely as a gift from Lord Goldsmith – which could torpedo No10’s arguments against putting it on the MP register.