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Mon 29 November 2021

Conservative MPs say the Prime Minister’s disastrous attempt to save Owen Paterson from corruption allegations has badly backfired, reports Adam Bienkov

Conservative MPs have told Byline Times they are furious with how Boris Johnson has handled the corruption crisis engulfing their Government and believe his attempts to save Owen Paterson will now lead to an inevitable crackdown on their own second jobs.

The row began last week after the Prime Minister tried, and ultimately failed, to save Conservative MP Owen Paterson from being suspended for breaking anti-corruption rules.

Although seemingly devised as a way of making it easier for Paterson – and Johnson himself – to escape censure from the Standards Commissioner, it has instead led to a renewed focus on corruption allegations against the party.

One MP, who is a former Cabinet minister, said that large numbers of Conservative backbenchers had written to the party’s whips warning them in advance against attempting to save Paterson, but were ignored.

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“I know for a fact that lots and lots of colleagues of mine, including myself, wrote quite explicit messages to the whips spelling out where we thought this was going to go,” the MP told Byline Times.

“We warned them that the whole thing was going to blow up in our faces, which happened, but also that it would accelerate a process of greater scrutiny on MPs over outside earnings.

“You could read it like a book, it was so obvious.”

The MP said that their views were “quite powerfully communicated” in writing to the whips and Downing Street but were “just not listened to”.

Another former Minister told Byline Times that Johnson had “opened up a Pandora’s Box”, on the issue of second jobs that he would struggle to deal with.

Most of those warning the party to avoid the row were first elected in the 2019 General Election to represent the so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies the Conservatives snatched from Labour in the north of England.

One well-connected MP told Byline Times that there was a class component to the decision to ignore the Red Wallers.

“There’s unquestionably a social and cultural gap there, between the newer intake and longer serving MPs”, they said.

We warned [Downing Street] that the whole thing was going to blow up in our faces

Conservative MP and former minister

The MP added that there appeared to be a “cabal” of mostly older and wealthier “institutionalised” Conservative MPs in safe seats who were listened to by Johnson – to the exclusion of the new intake of more representative Red Wallers in marginal seats.

“There is a cabal of people who are socially better connected to the chief whip, and socially better connected to Number 10 who they are listening to”, they said. “This group of senior MPs had the ear of [Johnson] in a way that was distorted and wrong and led to predictable and unpleasant consequences.”

Another former minister said the row had caused many Conservative MPs to reassess their views of the prime minister.

“I think a number of colleagues who felt that the current operation was guided by ideology rather than competence and pragmatism have not been surprised but a number of colleagues who previously didn’t have that view have had the scales fall from their eyes,” they told Byline Times.

They said the row could cause Downing Street serious problems with party discipline.

“I think the Prime Minister and his operation are gonna have to work very hard to regain trust and I think it’s probably going to be a very tricky autumn and winter for them,” they said.

The scandal, which continues to dominate the front pages more than a week after it started, threatens to further engulf Johnson’s Government in the coming weeks.

The Labour Party on Wednesday wrote to Parliament’s Standards Commissioner urging them to investigate the former Cabinet Minister Sir Geoffrey Cox. The QC is alleged to have used his House of Commons office to conduct legal work for the British Virgin Islands Government in a corruption case brought against it by the UK Government itself.

As a result of the growing allegations, there is speculation that the Prime Minister will soon be forced to announce a crackdown on second jobs. Byline Times has been told that Johnson’s Government is indeed now actively considering such a measure.

One person close to the discussions said that Downing Street was considering an “eye-catching” proposal on second jobs and political consultancies undertaken by MPs in order to “get out ahead” of the issue.

One MP said any new proposal could backfire on the party.

“They’ve got to think very carefully about this, because there could be some very bad unintended consequences,” they said.

Johnson’s spokesman told Byline Times on Tuesday that the Prime Minister does not support an “outright ban” on MPs having second jobs. However, when pushed, they declined to comment on whether he would instead support other restrictions on MPs’ ability to take outside work.

Whatever is announced by Downing Street, some Conservative MPs fear that the issue could cause lasting damage to the party.

One former minister told Byline Times that they had received furious responses from normally supportive constituents.

“The public perception of last week was just appalling,” the MP said.

“I had very many really angry people in my inbox and these are people who are what I would call the soft Tory vote. These are people who were happy with what I would call ‘Cameron Conservatism’ but are now very upset. The reaction has been right across the political spectrum.”

Another Conservative MP told Byline Times that the issue would likely cause long-term damage for the party.

“People are looking to see whether there will be a sudden dramatic drop in the polls but I suspect this will be slow burn,” the MP said.

“The risk for us is that, for the rest of this Parliament, we are going to see a constant drip, drip of stories that suggest we’re a party that’s out of touch.”

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