Days do not get much more challenging than the one faced by the Prime Minister this Wednesday. At an ill-tempered Prime Minister’s Questions, Keir Starmer labelled him a “coward”, an accusation which eventually had to be withdrawn more out of technical necessity than any real disagreement. “I lead, he covers up,” Starmer went on: “When somebody in my party misbehaves, I kick them out. When somebody in his party misbehaves, he tries to get them off the hook.”
The skewering continued later that afternoon at the Liaison Committee. Johnson was pressed on his handling of the sleaze allegations which have dominated the month’s news cycle. Johnson was forced to admit that Owen Paterson – whose original suspension would now be more than a third complete – had unquestionably fallen foul of the rules on paid advocacy, and that it was obviously a mistake to conflate individual circumstances with Parliamentary rules on paid advocacy.
This is no straightforward admission for the leader of the Conservative Party to put on record. The register of MPs’ interests shows that more than 90 out of 360 Tories have extra jobs on top of their work in parliament. They are almost entirely older than 50, 86% of them are men, and the highest earners are all former cabinet ministers. Extortionately well-paying second jobs are a trademark of a certain generation of Tory, one which harks back to a golden age for Parliamentarians: a time when well-paid consultancy gigs were as fundamental a part of an MP’s schedule as Beaujolais on Parliament’s Terrace, Thursday afternoon drives back to the country, and triggering diplomatic crises by entertaining Soviet spies at your Buckinghamshire mansion.
With Johnson’s support from within the Conservative base crumbling, things are looking no better amongst the party’s 2019 intake. Red Wall Tories are turning their backs on the Prime Minister with this week’s Integrated Rail Plan doing nothing to win them back over. The promise of delivering HS2 in full has been repeated by the Prime Minister and the Department for Transport as frequently as an announcement telling passengers to ‘see it, say it, sort it’, yet the network map published this Thursday features a large section of the slated HS2 eastern leg conspicuously missing. The promise of a Northern Powerhouse Railway network, effectively patching up the holes left in the north’s high speed rail map, has not pacified backbenchers who believe that Johnson owes his majority to northern Tory voters. The tweets, press releases and Whatsapp briefings from the Prime Minister’s own MPs tell a story of betrayal, of promises not kept, and of towns and cities left behind. The implication from within the Conservative ranks is clear: this IRP could spell RIP for the levelling up agenda, and will create a two-speed Britain, with a new east-west divide to match the longstanding imbalance between north and south.
The twin controversies around second jobs and abandoned rail promises have collided in one week, with the effect that Boris Johnson finds himself alienated from the two pillars of support which have propped up his leadership. On one hand, the base of traditional Conservative MPs who feel they have been unfairly berated for having a second job, and embarrassed by the subsequent U-turn, combined with the Red Wall MPs who put the Prime Minister in power now in revolt over HS2. Even the general public, usually the safest of all of Johnson’s allies, have begun to turn on him.
With brutal timing, Boris left the Liaison Committee on Wednesday afternoon to immediately address the 1922 Committee. The Prime Minister admitted to Conservative MPs that he had “crashed the car into a ditch” by allowing the lobbying scandal to explode into a full-blown sleaze saga. MPs in attendance were instructed not to speak to journalists, but one informed Laura Kuenssberg that the PM ‘looked weak and sounded weak,’ that his ‘authority is evaporating’.
Lobby journalists have reported that the House of Commons’ members-only tea room – always at the centre of Parliamentary revolts, intrigue, and schism, is looking particularly busy this week. By contrast, the green Tory benches behind the Prime Minister at PMQs looked unusually bare.