At a press conference on Wednesday, Boris Johnson faced such a barrage of questions about ethical standards in politics that he felt obliged to argue that the UK “is not remotely a corrupt country”.
This was an unusual step for a British prime minister to take, and begged the question: well, is it?
Johnson’s government has faced numerous claims connected to:
- Vested interests
- Wider misgovernment
Below are some of the main concerns.
Trying to save a Conservative MP from punishment
The catalyst for the current row was Johnson’s decision to try to retrospectively change the system for disciplining MPs so as to avoid punishment for Owen Paterson, a Tory former minister found by the commissioner for standards and by a cross-party committee to have committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.
Lobbying and MPs’ second jobs
Paterson’s lobbying was done on behalf of companies who together paid him well over £100,000 a year. His case brought a fresh examination of the scale of such outside work, mainly done by Tory MPs.
Peerages ‘for sale’ or for cronies
At the weekend, an investigation showed 16 of the Tories’ main treasurers in the last 20 years, who made donations to the party of £3m or above, had been made peers.
Murky standards by Johnson himself
Boris Johnson himself was criticised earlier this year for some opacity over revealing details about a luxury villa stay in Mustique funded by a Tory donor. He has since refused to disclose the cost of another donated holiday, this one to Spain.
Most confusing is who paid for renovations to Johnson’s Downing Street flat, which reportedly cost as much as £200,000. Although Johnson eventually met all costs above the £30,000 public allowance himself, some bills were initially met by the Cabinet Office and by Tory peer and donor, Lord Brownlow.
Seeking to undermine the commissioner for standards
After Paterson’s punishment was briefly overturned, one of Johnson’s most senior ministers, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, suggested Stone, should step down, despite her independent status.
Since then, Downing Street has twice argued that Stone should not examine two standards issues connected personally to Johnson:
- Who paid for the flat renovations
- What was the cost of the free holiday in Spain, provided by one of his ministers, Zac Goldsmith.
Hobbling other independent regulators
The government’s new elections bill would, critics say, greatly reduce the powers of the Electoral Commission, the elections watchdog.
Johnson is also seemingly intent on making a key ally, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, chair of the broadcasting and telecoms watchdog Ofcom. After Dacre was turned down for the role, ministers reopened the process with a change to the job description, intended to give him a better chance.
In November 2020, Geidt’s predecessor as adviser on ministers’ interests, Alex Allan, quit in the wake of Johnson’s refusal to sack Priti Patel despite a formal investigation finding evidence that the home secretary had bullied civil servants.
There are even wider allegations that the government is trying to ensure that only its supporters are appointed to roles in other bodies, such as the Charity Commission.
Breaking international law/re-writing treaties
Last year there was widespread criticism after the government conceded it planned to break international law by unilaterally amending post-Brexit provisions for Northern Ireland.
More widely, there have been accusations that Johnson signed up to the Northern Ireland protocol in bad faith.
Last month, Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, claimed the UK government always intended to “ditch” the protocol and only signed it to help win the 2019 election.