Sir John Major has criticised Boris Johnson’s Government over its “shameful, wrong and unworthy” handling of the Owen Paterson row.
The former Conservative prime minister suggested the Johnson administration was “politically corrupt” over its treatment of the House of Commons and said its conduct had trashed the reputation of Parliament.
Mr Johnson was forced to U-turn over a plan to prevent Mr Paterson facing a 30-day Commons suspension for a serious breach of lobbying rules.
Mr Paterson subsequently quit as an MP after the Government abandoned an attempt to set up a Tory-dominated committee to re-examine his case and the wider Commons standards regime.
Sir John said: “I think the way the Government handled that was shameful, wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government. It also had the effect of trashing the reputation of Parliament.”
The former prime minister, whose opposition to Brexit has seen him at odds with Mr Johnson’s Government, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the action of the current administration was “damaging at home and to our reputation overseas”.
‘Sleaze is unacceptable’
Sir John, whose own government in the 1990s was undermined by sleaze rows, said: “When that happened I set up the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life to stop it, which has been a huge success.
“The striking difference is this: in the 1990s I set up a committee to tackle this sort of behaviour. Over the last few days we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour.
“Sleaze is unacceptable, was unacceptable when I was there, and I suffered a great deal of pain and anguish over it. It’s unacceptable today, and it needs to be stopped.”
He suggested there was an arrogance at the heart of Mr Johnson’s administration.
“There is a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour.”
He added: “Whenever they run up against difficulties with anybody – whether it is the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission, the BBC, they react not with an understanding, not with trying to placate what has gone wrong, but actually in rather a hostile fashion.”
The Government has a working majority of around 80 and Sir John suggested that had allowed Mr Johnson to treat Parliament “with contempt”.
Major announcements were briefed to sections of the media before MPs, he said, and ministers had “behaved badly” in “ways that are perhaps politically corrupt”.
Mr Paterson was found to have breached lobbying rules in an “egregious” way by the Commons Standards Committee following an investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone.
But as MPs prepared to vote on a 30-day suspension, which could have triggered the recall process for a by-election, the Government threw its weight behind an amendment to appoint a new committee to look again at the case and the disciplinary system.
When that plan was ditched by the Government Mr Paterson resigned as an MP, but Downing Street has refused to rule out the possibility of recommending him for a peerage.
Sir John said that would be “rather extraordinary” and expressed doubt that it would be approved.
The debacle has led to fury among Tory MPs who were whipped to vote for the controversial plan, only to see it jettisoned.
Chief Whip Mark Spencer has been the target of largely anonymous briefings blaming him for the fiasco although Downing Street has publicly backed him.
Senior Tory backbencher Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown told Today that ultimately the Prime Minister was responsible for the mistakes in handling the situation.
‘PM must take responsibility’
“The Chief Whip was merely doing his job, he was collating the strands of opinion, he was then reporting that back to No 10 who decided what to do and what decisions were made,” Sir Geoffrey said.
“The Prime Minister is in charge of the party, in charge of the Government, ultimately he must take responsibility.”
Sir John said Mr Spencer and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg had a duty to the Prime Minister to inform him of the mood in Parliament.
“Plainly either they told him the mood was wrong and he brushed their concerns aside, which may have happened, or alternatively they were not in touch with Parliament.”
Meanwhile Tammy Banks, one of the non-MPs who sits on the Standards Committee, defended the process and the work of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng had suggested her future was in doubt and allies of Mr Paterson have publicly criticised her handling of the case.
Tammy Banks, one of the non-MPs to sit on the Standards Committee, said she had been “appalled” by “slanderous” attacks on Ms Stone.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Week In Westminster: “She works hard, she does her best and above everything else she is fair.”
Responding to Sir John’s comments, deputy Liberal Democrat leader Daisy Cooper said: “For a former Conservative Prime Minister to describe this Government as being politically corrupt is frankly astonishing and a damning indictment of the Tories under Boris Johnson.”
Triggering Article 16 would be ‘colossally stupid’
Sir John also warned Mr Johnson that suspending parts of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal would be dangerous and “colossally stupid”.
The former prime minister said the move would damage relations with the European Union and United States and could further destabilise Northern Ireland.
Talks between the EU and UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol continue but Brexit Minister Lord Frost has warned that the option of unilaterally abandoning parts of the agreement remained “very much on the table”.
To avoid a hard border with Ireland, the protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, resulting in some checks for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, which left the single market.
Lord Frost and the Prime Minister have argued that the EU’s interpretation of the deal has led to difficulties which have created the condition to justify the use of Article 16 of the protocol, effectively suspending elements of the arrangements.
Sir John, an opponent of Brexit, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it would be colossally stupid to do that.
“To use Article 16, to suspended parts of the protocol, would be absurd. This protocol is being denounced week after week by Lord Frost and the Prime Minister.
“Who negotiated the wretched protocol? Lord Frost and the Prime Minister. They negotiated it, they signed it, they now wish to break it.”
Negotiating ‘with all the subtlety of a brick’
Lord Frost met European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Friday but there was no breakthrough in efforts to resolve the row.
Further talks will take place in London on November 12 but Sir John said: “At the moment, we are negotiating over the protocol with all the subtlety of a brick.
“What is happening week after week is that Lord Frost goes into the negotiations, he gives away nothing, he takes something from the European Union, he goes away, blames them for the fact that nothing at all has happened.”
Sir John said he suspected Article 16 would be triggered after the United Nations Cop26 climate summit being hosted by the UK in Glasgow has concluded.
“This is a very difficult and dangerous road to go down. It’s not just a question of trade difficulties,” he warned.
“It could, we’ve seen what’s happened in Northern Ireland before, it could become much worse. They should be very, very careful about this.
“This is silly politics to placate a few extreme Brexiteers, and the price will be paid by businesses, people in Northern Ireland and the reputation of the United Kingdom.”
‘Bitter old Remoaner’
Sir John acknowledged that critics would brand him a “bitter old Remoaner”.
He said: “I am old, and I’m most certainly a Remainer.
“But I’m not bitter, but I am disappointed and angry at the way the Government has behaved.”
Ireland’s European affairs minister, Thomas Byrne, said: “John Major today spoke some of the truest words we’ve heard on this issue.
“Article 16 would be ‘colossally stupid’.”