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Conflict-of-Interest Case Has Boris Johnson Reversing Course, Again

Since taking power in 2019, Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, has often reversed course, changing his mind on everything from lockdown rules and school examinations to free meals for children and coronavirus restrictions at Christmas.

This week, Mr. Johnson finds himself retreating again.

On Wednesday he intervened to stop the suspension from Parliament of Owen Paterson, a fellow Conservative Party lawmaker found to have broken rules on political lobbying. The government also pushed through contentious plans to change the system that investigated Mr. Paterson.

By Thursday that effort had collapsed and Mr. Paterson resigned following a backlash from politicians, news organizations and even the former head of the intelligences services.

The furor risks denting Mr. Johnson’s authority, but it has also raised fresh questions about the ethical stance of a prime minister whose Conservative Party has faced a string of other allegations of influence-peddling, conflict of interest and profiteering.

“This has been an unbelievable 24 hours, even by this government’s chaotic standards,” said the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, in a statement on Thursday, adding that an effort to “rip up the rules on standards in public life” was a “truly damning indictment of this prime minister and the corrupt government he leads.”

Boris Johnson in Parliament on Wednesday.Credit…Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament, via Reuters

More neutral observers think that Mr. Johnson walked into a minefield of his own making.

“It was a complete own goal, they totally misjudged the reaction” said Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, a research institute.

The damage could be considerable, she added. “It reinforces the negative narrative about politicians: that they have their snouts in the trough, that there is one rule for them and another for everyone else. That is a narrative that is very corrosive and is the reason politicians have such low approval ratings,” Ms. White said.

The crisis erupted over a report compiled by the independent parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, which concluded that Mr. Paterson had misused his position as a lawmaker to benefit two firms that were paying him in total more than 100,000 pounds a year, or about $135,000.

Mr. Paterson, a former cabinet minister, argued that he did not have a right of appeal and claimed that evidence in his favor was overlooked.

But after reviewing the case, the House of Commons Standards Committee recommended suspending Mr. Paterson from Parliament for 30 sitting days — a severe punishment that could have endangered his future as a lawmaker.

Such recommendations are usually approved by Parliament with little fuss but on Wednesday, the government intervened and ordered its lawmakers to vote for an amendment to halt Mr. Paterson’s case. It also asked them to support revamping the entire disciplinary system for lawmakers, creating a right of appeal but effectively putting power in the hands of a new committee on which there would be a majority of Conservative Party lawmakers.

Despite a rebellion among its own lawmakers, the government won its vote. But its victory was brief.

The idea of a new committee was effectively killed late Wednesday, when opposition parties made it clear that they would boycott the new body, sapping it of legitimacy.

A protester demonstrated in London against the government’s attempt to overhaul Parliament’s disciplinary process.Credit…Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Then on Thursday Jonathan Evans, a former head of the MI5 intelligence service who heads a committee on standards in public life, described it as an “extraordinary proposal” that was “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.”

Critics contend that Mr. Johnson and his party have a poor record on standards in public life. Since Mr. Johnson came to power, his enemies have accused the government of cronyism over the way they awarded contracts during the pandemic. Questions have also swirled over the fund-raising activities of the Conservative Party’s well-connected co-chairman, Ben Elliot.

Mr. Johnson has been under scrutiny, too, over who paid for a vacation he took in the Caribbean, as well as over the upscale makeover of his apartment in Downing Street.

Indeed his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, now an arch critic, argued on Thursday that Mr. Johnson wanted to weaken the system not so much to save Mr. Paterson but because of worries that an investigation into the way donations were used for the Downing Street refurbishment could show rules were broken.

Mr. Cummings is regarded as a partisan figure, and Mr. Paterson’s departure may stem further negative headlines.

But some of Mr. Johnson’s own lawmakers are furious at having been made to vote for a scheme that was dropped within hours. And the opposition Labour Party is certain to exploit the episode, already accusing the government of “wallowing in sleaze.”

As for Mr. Paterson, he struck an unrepentant tone in a resignation statement in which he said he would “remain a public servant but outside the cruel world of politics.”

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