Journalists love the word “sleaze” and use it with relish in headlines and news bulletins. The word appears to cover a multitude of sins from financial irregularity to sexual scandal. Yet my Oxford dictionary is less explicit, defining the word as applying to “a man of low moral purpose.” (Not a woman, apparently).
It has been applied freely in the past week to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and to the man whose transgressions caused a political row, the former Conservative Minister Owen Patterson, who has now resigned as an MP.
Kathryn Stone, the commissioner for Parliamentary standards, found after an investigation that Patterson “repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant” and that “this had brought the House into disrepute.
No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests.” She proposed that he be excluded from Parliament for 30 sitting days.
He had evidently received £8,333 a month from a health care company, Randox Laboratories, based in his Northern Ireland constituency, which secured government contracts worth £133 million and £347,000m for testing kits during the Covid crisis.
He was also paid £12,000 a year by Lynn’s Country Foods, a sausage maker in Northern Ireland, and had approached the Food Agency seven times on the company’s behalf.
So far, so good. Sleaze being spotted, investigated and punished.
Then Andrea Leadsom, the MP and former Minister, put forward a motion that Patterson should be cleared and an investigation launched by MPs into the Parliamentary Standards Commission. Ministers came close to suggesting that Ms Stone should be sacked.
Then came an amazing development in the rising drama, when Johnson ordered a three-line whip on Tory MPs to support the motion. In doing that he was effectively demanding that his MPs should support a clear breach of Parliamentary rules. Dozens of Tory MPs abstained and 16, to their credit, voted against the motion. A party vice-chairman reigned. The opposition parties voted against.
In view of this furore, Johnson then did an embarrassing U-turn, dropping the government’s support for Patterson, who then resigned. The question is: was Johnson himself guilty of sleaze in first trying to overturn Parliamentary rules and forcing his party to support him?
He was certainly guilty of a colossal error of political judgement, brought on by his personal support for an avid Brexiteer and the arrogance to assume that his word was all that counted in asserting Tory policy, even if it meant forcing MPs to support a breach of Parliamentary rules.
Perhaps this should go down as sleaze bid averted. The next day, as though nothing had happened, he asserted to the press: “Breaking Parliamentary rules must be punished.”
Whether Johnson himself will be punished by the electorate remains to be seen.
He has not been accused of taking any money himself. I suspect that he will be judged less on his personal qualities than on the improvement he brings, or fails to bring, to the economy and to people’s living standards.
He now faces two other Parliamentary issues, both with an ethical dimension: elevating to the Lords a series of short-term party treasurers who happened also to have donated around £3m each to the Conservative party; and whether there should be any limits on MPs having second jobs.
The first arrangement, although pretty blatant, can be defended by showing that they were indeed party treasurers and claiming that they were rewarded for that work. I expect it will stop now anyway after being exposed, and will doubtless be replaced by some other dodgy means of rewarding party donors.
I care more about MPs’ other jobs. It has worried me for some time that our rulers know nothing except politics, many going straight from university to party roles, then becoming political advisers until they get a constituency.
In other words, they have little personal knowledge of how the world works or of mixing with the ordinary people who vote for them and who they represent.
When I was growing up, nearly all Ministers had served in World War 2 (Harold Macmillan, a post-war Prime Minister, had even served in the trenches in World War 1). They knew that politics could be a matter of life and death.
As time passed we had generations of MPs who hadn’t done any National Service, even though they were to make life-and-death decisions about sending their fellow countrymen to war.
I think it is highly desirable that MPs have second jobs that give them first-hand experience of real life outside Westminster. Consultancies do not provide that. And obviously care needs to be taken to ensure that their role as an MP always comes first.
Will “sleaze”, however defined, bring Boris down? Somehow I doubt it, unless he is shown to be personally corrupt, which seems unlikely. He is more vulnerable to the charge of incompetence – and would be beaten on that issue hands down if the Labour Party wasn’t even more useless and unable even to run itself, never mind the country.
81 women murdered since Sarah
A FEW weeks ago, I called for an international system for states to be monitored on the way they treat women. Since then the statistics have been pouring in.
The average global figure for murders of women by men is 66,000; in 2017 the figure had risen to 87,000. In the UK a woman is killed by a man every three days.
In the past year an estimated 1.6 million women were abused by their male partners in Britain; 618,000 women suffered sexual assaults and 892,000 were being stalked by men.
We all remember the protests caused by the murder of Sarah Everard (and the arrests of women taking part in a vigil for her by police whose Met colleague turned out to be her murderer), In the 28 weeks since then, an astonishing 81 women have been murdered in Britain.
A recent report estimates that there are about 400,000 men in Britain capable of causing medium to severe harm to women; only 1 per cent of these are receiving any treatment.
What has caused me special concern recently are reports of unreported incidents of sexual assault, including rape, in the Army. Many are said to have been reported to the Ministry of Defence and never acted upon.
In his final report as Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, expresses his concern at the misogyny, homophobia and racism shown by too many police officers. He thinks the standard of recruitment should be higher and that they should be more thoroughly vetted.
He favours introducing random checks of policemen’s work and private phones and of their posts on social media. He fears that chief constables put weaker officers onto corruption case, saving their best men for major crimes such as murder and rape.
Awareness of the dangers to women has risen sharply in the past few years, but action to stop it, sadly, takes much longer.