Boris Johnson declines to apologise for handling of Owen Paterson lobbying scandal ahead of emergency Commons debate

Boris Johnson has declined to apologise for his handling of the Owen Paterson scandal, as he said it is “very important” to get the standards system for MPs right.

Speaking ahead of a debate in the Commons, the prime minister said: “We are going to make every effort to get it right. We are going to hold MPs to account. MPs should not break the rules.”

Pressed on his handling of Mr Paterson, who resigned as a Conservative MP after Downing Street abandoned an attempt to avoid him being hit with a 30-day Commons suspension for breaking lobbying rules over his £110,000-a-year private sector work, Mr Johnson said: “I don’t think there’s much more to be said about that particular case, I really don’t.

“But what we do need to do is look also at the process, and that is what we were trying to do last week.”

Asked if Mr Paterson could be in line for a place in the House of Lords, the PM said there “has been absolutely no discussion” of a peerage for him.

Mr Johnson added: “If there is anything positive to come out of the whole thing, it is that, as far as I can make out, the Speaker is determined to try to move us all forward with a system whereby we have a cross-party approach, which is what we were trying to achieve last week.”

Asked if MPs should be barred from having second jobs, the PM replied: “All those kind of things are issues that the Speaker’s panel – whatever he is going to set up – will have a look at.”

In a sign that the controversy could be affecting support for the government, an Ipsos MORI poll puts Labour on 36% and the Tories on 35%.

Satisfaction in the way the PM is doing his job has fallen five points since since September (39% to 34%), while 61% are dissatisfied with his performance (up 10 points in the same time span).

Mr Johnson will not be in the Commons for Monday afternoon’s emergency debate.

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Number 10 has said Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay will be responding for the government in the debate as the PM is visiting a hospital trust in Northumberland.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman said it was a “long-standing plan for him to go up there and see the importance of NHS staff getting their boosters”, adding that the visit was planned before the debate was scheduled.

Sir Keir Starmer accused the PM of “running scared” by not appearing in the Commons.

“Boris Johnson does not have the decency either to defend or apologise for his actions,” the Labour leader, who will be responding on behalf of his party in the debate, said.

“Rather than repairing the damage he has done, the prime minister is running scared.

“When required to lead, he has chosen to hide. His concern, as always, is self-preservation, not the national interest.”

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who will give a statement before the debate starts, said events surrounding Mr Paterson last week were a “very dark week” for parliament.

“I don’t want another week like that…let’s listen to the views of MPs and then let’s move forward,” he said.

“I want to work very closely with the chair of [the] standards [committee]. The standards [committee] brought that report out, they are reviewing, and I will look forward to their review. But it’s about trying to get this house in a much better place than where we left it last week”

He added: “What we’ve got to do is move this House forward where the public out there have trust and faith in the politicians they elect.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant, chair of the Commons committee on standards, told Kay Burley earlier that last week’s events had done “terrible, terrible reputational damage” to parliament.

He said some alterations could be made to standards rules but cautioned against “making sudden changes”, adding: “One of my principles is that the government should stay clear of independent disciplinary processes.”

Mr Bryant also told Sky News that there had been attempts to “lobby” and “bully” committee members over its ruling on Mr Paterson.

The Liberal Democrats, who secured the emergency debate, have called for an independent statutory public inquiry into sleaze and corruption allegations.

The inquiry, which would have the power to summon witnesses and take evidence under oath, would examine not only the Paterson row but also the awarding of coronavirus contracts, whether Mr Johnson’s holidays were properly declared, and the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.

The party also said that any MPs being investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards should not be able to vote or propose amendments to motions related to disciplinary issues.

It comes as former Tory deputy PM Michael Heseltine told Sky News he cannot “disagree” with former Tory PM Sir John Major’s assessment that recent behaviour of Mr Johnson’s government could be considered “politically corrupt”.

Lord Heseltine spoke after cabinet minister George Eustice played down the sleaze row as a “storm in a teacup”, insisting the government was focused on “big, important decisions” like those posed at COP26.

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