Today
Mon 29 November 2021

The Prime Minister is right at the centre of the Owen Paterson scandal which appears to be turning the tide like other misdemeanours have not, reports Adam Bienkov

Boris Johnson has long carried himself with the appearance of a man who believes that the rules simply do not apply to him.

As his schoolmaster at Eton once wrote, he often gives the impression of believing that he should be regarded as an “exception” who “should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.

For many years this exceptionalism has been largely accepted, not just by his own party, but by large parts of the public too.

Like Donald Trump, who once famously boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any votes”, Johnson too has been able to brush off scandals that would have finished the careers of most other politicians.

However, self-confidence often turns into arrogance and complacency and there are signs that Johnson could now ultimately be heading towards a similar downfall of the last US President.

The Owen Paterson scandal, which blew up last week, has been particularly damaging for Johnson because it goes to the heart of existing public perceptions about him and his Government.

Like Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, the Paterson debacle has chimed with a growing public sense that Johnson believes that there should be one set of rules for himself and his Government and a completely different set of rules for everybody else.

This sense has been given greater urgency by the response of Johnson’s former supporters in the Conservative-supporting press. The Daily Mail, in particular, has turned on Johnson’s Government in the past week with a ferocity that it has never before demonstrated since he first became Prime Minister.

The Paterson affair, and the concurrent allegations that Johnson’s party has been systematically awarding millionaire and billionaire donors with peerages and privileges, risks alienating the sort of middle class voters that the Mail prides itself on representing.

And, whereas previous Johnson controversies have fizzled out after a few days, the current sleaze allegations are likely to only continue – with Johnson right at the centre of the scandal.

Like Paterson, Johnson himself has repeatedly fallen foul of parliamentary rules and has been investigated by the Standards Commissioner three times. There is a widespread suspicion in Westminster that the real motivation behind the Prime Minister’s intervention to save Paterson last week was his desire to save himself from a fourth investigation by Kathryn Stone.

Johnson’s attempts to use Conservative donors and allies to pay for his own private holidays and the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat have repeatedly come under the spotlight of the parliamentary authorities. That scrutiny is now only likely to grow.

After many years in which Johnson has evaded accountability for his actions, it now finally feels that the tide is turning against him.

An opinion poll over the weekend found that his approval ratings have hit a record low, with another poll showing that the Conservatives have slipped behind Labour for the first time in many months. A poll commissioned by Byline Times last week suggested that a majority of voters now believe that the Government is corrupt.

With Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg both going to great lengths to avoid speaking in a parliamentary debate on the sleaze allegations on Monday, all the signs are that Downing Street is now finally realising the dangers that the current scandal poses to the Government.

As that pressure grows, Johnson could soon be forced into accepting new restrictions on the ability of MPs to profit from their roles in Parliament. Any such restrictions would be hugely unpopular with Conservative MPs, who would be disproportionately hit by them, and add to growing unease on their benches about whether Johnson is still the right man to lead their party.

Finding a way out of this crisis would be difficult for any government and would require a leader with great political sensitivity and the ability to act first before being pushed. All the evidence from the past week is that these are skills which the current occupant of 10 Downing Street severely lacks.

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