Sleaze row ‘storm in a teacup’, minister claims as Labour accuses PM of 'trashing' UK reputation

Criticism of the government comes not only from Labour, but from Tory MPs too, as ITV News Politics Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports

Boris Johnson is trying to undermine Westminster’s sleaze watchdogs because of his own run-ins with the standards system, Sir Keir Starmer has claimed.

The Labour leader said the prime minister was unable to clean up Westminster because he is “up to his neck in this”.

Cabinet minister George Eustice dismissed the situation which has developed since the Owen Paterson case as a “storm in a teacup”, but anger within the Tory ranks has led to pressure on the PM.

Issues around standards have dominated debate in Westminster after the government sought to prevent former Cabinet minister Mr Paterson facing an immediate suspension over an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, instead backing the creation of a Tory-led committee to look again at the case and overhaul the standards system.

Ministers backed down following a backlash, prompting Mr Paterson to quit the Commons.

Sir Keir, who returned to the public eye after a period of self-isolation with Covid-19, said: “Instead of upholding standards, he ordered his MPs to protect his mate and rip up the whole system – that is corrupt, it is contemptible and it’s not a one-off.”

Asked about Mr Johnson’s future, Sir Keir said he is “angry” as the reputation of the country and democracy is being “trashed” by the prime minister.

He went on: “When there was sleaze in the mid-1990s John Major rolled up his sleeves and he put in place the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life – so he was the prime minister who said ‘I will clear this up’.

“Boris Johnson is the prime minister who is leading his troops through the sewer – he’s up to his neck in this.”

Owen Paterson quit as a Tory MP following the government's U-turn. Credit: PA

Labour is pushing for Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone to investigate the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat and his Marbella holiday in a villa owned by the family of environment minister Lord Goldsmith.

The prime minister has already been admonished by the commissioner on four occasions, most recently over a £15,000 holiday to the island of Mustique between December 26, 2019, and January 5, 2020, but this was later overturned by the Committee on Standards.

Sir Keir said: “There is a whiff that the prime minister would quite like the scrutiny and the standards to be weakened because they are looking too closely at him.”

He claimed the prime minister had a sense there is “one rule for him and his mates and another rule for everybody else”.

Environment Secretary Mr Eustice said the issue of the luxury Downing Street flat renovations had already been examined by Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests and “put to bed”, suggesting there was no need for Ms Stone to look at it.

“It’s not her role to implement the ministerial code, it’s very much around parliamentary standards and MPs,” he told the Andrew Marr Show.

Mr Eustice acknowledged the government had “made a mistake” but told Sky News: “What we have seen is a Westminster storm in a teacup.”

Cabinet minister George Eustice has described the Owen Paterson case as 'a storm in a teacup'. Credit: ITV News

Labour also called for Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg to quit over his role in the debacle.

Opposition parties stepped up attacks on the government over a Sunday Times report which showed 15 of the last 16 of the Conservative Party’s treasurers have been offered a seat in the Lords having each donated more than £3 million to the party.

The most controversial appointment was that of Lord Cruddas, who took his seat after Mr Johnson rejected the advice of the House of Lords Appointment Commission not to grant him a peerage.

An ex-party chair told the newspaper: “The most telling line is once you pay your £3 million, you get your peerage.”

The Tories have denied any link between the donations and the nominations to sit in the Lords, with Mr Eustice claiming their expertise made them “valuable” members of the Upper Chamber.

Mr Eustice said: “They are philanthropists who give huge amounts to charity, who have been very successful in business and, therefore, on those grounds ought to be considered for the Lords.”

Senior SNP MP Pete Wishart said the police should investigate the Sunday Times’ claims.

“The Metropolitan Police should launch a fresh cash for honours investigation to determine whether a criminal offence has been committed,” he said.

“It is utterly appalling that so many millionaire Tory Party donors have been handed life peerages by Boris Johnson and his predecessors.”

The events surrounding the Paterson case have led to questions in Tory ranks about the Prime Minister’s judgment.

Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood wrote in The Sun that Mr Johnson risks ending up as “just another former occupant of No 10” if he takes Parliament for granted.

“There is genuine rage within the ranks,” he said.

“Constituents have been rightly appalled by what they have seen. One system for MPs, another for the public.”

Another former minister Caroline Nokes – a prominent critic of Mr Johnson – wrote in the Sunday Mirror: “If my postbag is anything to go by, the public think the PM’s decision to circle his wagons and attack Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone well and truly stinks. And it does.”

On Saturday former prime minister Sir John Major delivered a withering assessment of the “shameful” government, claiming Mr Johnson’s administration was “perhaps politically corrupt”.