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No convenient exit from sleaze row mess for Boris Johnson - BBC news

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Media caption,

Watch: Boris Johnson says he does not believe UK institutions are corrupt

When the organisers of one of the UK's most important international events in years conceived of the COP26 summit, the prime minister himself told colleagues he wanted to create the same kind of buzz as the happy 2012 Olympics summer.

So I'm not entirely sure they imagined Boris Johnson would end up, on a stage visible to the world's media, reassuring people that he "genuinely believes" the UK is not a corrupt country - moments after exhorting his counterparts to crack on with helping to tackle climate change.

But to absolutely no one's surprise, the PM's press conference after his brief return to the Glasgow conference was dominated by questions about the story that's been occupying so many minds in Westminster this week.

Four hundred miles wasn't enough to provide political distance for the prime minister from the mess in London SW1.

That's partly because the allegations keep coming.

One of his former cabinet colleagues, Sir Geoffrey Cox, was revealed today not just to have been paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for legal work in the past few years, something which was widely known and had been declared publicly.

But footage of some of the MP's lucrative work, posted online seems to show him taking part in a session in his Commons office - he even apologises for leaving because the division bell rang.

In other words, he had to nip out to go and vote.

That took the accusations against him into a different territory, because while MPs are allowed to have second jobs, they are not allowed to use taxpayer-funded resources, or premises, to do so.

There's now likely to be an investigation about what he got up to, even though in his first public statement since claims about his sojourn in the Caribbean emerged, he denied breaking the rules.

Image source, UK Parliament
Image caption,

Labour's Toby Perkins was among angry MPs on Wednesday, brandishing cash at the government in reference to Mr Paterson's paid lobbying

Nor is there an easy exit from the tangle for the prime minister because unlike his colleagues, he has repeatedly refused to apologise for trying last week to rip up the rules that govern MPs' behaviour and protect another senior MP, Owen Paterson.

He was asked repeatedly if he was sorry on Monday, and refused to say so.

Unshockingly, the same thing happened on Wednesday, which leaves the sore running.

The other awkward truth for Downing Street is that even though it's the behaviour of just a few dozen MPs that's being called into question, most of them are Conservatives, which is a fact they cannot avoid.

And as we talked about on Monday, the prime minister's own handling of what's happening and his own attitude to the rules has infuriated many of his own colleagues, and that feeling has not gone.

Last, by mentioning the allegations of corruption laid at the government's door, Boris Johnson has perhaps reinforced the criticism from the opposition, even if, by international standards, it is important to say the UK is nowhere near the top of the list.

(According to one measure, by campaign group Transparency International, the UK is just outside the top 10 of the world's least corrupt countries.)

Forty-eight hours ago, Downing Street was hoping that the political explosion around Mr Paterson's case was fading.

But there's little sign of that, and if Boris Johnson's trip to Glasgow, was, as some suspected, partly an attempt to distract attention from the sleaze saga, it hasn't worked.

PS Downing Street may be aware that all is not entirely well.

File this under niche, but interesting to political obsessives. Ben Gascoigne, a long-standing staffer who quit Number 10 not so long ago, is returning as a new deputy chief of staff.

He worked with Boris Johnson for years before Number 10, with no particular allegiance to either Vote Leave or the more recent circle in Downing Street, who are often seen as close to Michael Gove or Carrie Johnson.

He's one of the few people in Westminster without visible enemies and his return this week is being seen by some as an acknowledgement that there have been gaps in the team in charge.

It's not entirely clear what it means for the existing pecking order in the Downing Street machine.

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More on this story

  • What is lobbying? A brief guide

  • What does 'sleaze' mean when politicians use it?

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