Amidst the sleaze allegations of the early 1990s, John Major commissioned the House that MPs inhabit – in terms of the arrangements that govern what they can and can’t do while in post.
The system which sat in judgement on Owen Paterson last week – with a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards investigating, a Standards Committee reaching a verdict, and the Commons then taking a view of it – is essentially one that Major oversaw.
By contrast, Boris Johnson’s different approach can be summed up in three words: change the subject (or at least try to; or, in extremis, say nothing at all).
He seems to hope that the forest fire in the media about MPs’ outside interests will burn itself out – that a combination of the Speaker and the House itself will leave it with no material to set ablaze.
In other words, MPs will now let the flames splutter out amidst the long grass of blather, procrastination and flannel. Either a new committee or the Standards Committee itself reports, and the status quo carries on more or less intact.
Deprived of Parliamentary proceedings to report, and more Commons debates like yesterday’s and last week’s on the Paterson affair, the media then moves collectively on to whatever else catches the attention of its febrile attention span.
Perhaps this gamble will work for the Government. But here is a plausible scenario under which it doesn’t – as follows.
TV, social media and the papers – including most of the Conservative-leaning ones – keep fanning the flames with everything they can find: the Prime Minister’s holidays, Covid contracts, Downing Street wallpaper: anything that comes to hand.
Meanwhile, the Tories lose the by-elections they must currently contest, plus more as MPs in trouble over standards, or whose outside hours are especially numerous, are forced out or stand down.
Continuing standards investigations mean that the reach and heat of the flames grow rather than fade. Older generations of Conservative MPs, including the core of Spartans who supported Paterson, argue that Johnson should sit the conflagration out.
The younger ones take a different view – especially the 2019 intake which owes their seats to the Prime Minister and the Brexit deal that he delivered.
The electorate itself now increasingly divides on age rather than class. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see Tory MPs begin to do so too.
Mark Fletcher’s extraordinary speech yesterday, in which he said that “two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong”, was aimed at those veteran Tories – damning their contrary judgement.
Dennis Skinner’s replacement for Bolsover, who sits on the committee which produced the report that damned Paterson, won’t have spoken for all his intake but will have done for much of it, plus for some MPs from older intakes too, of course.
The logic of their position is that the Prime Minister should take the lead himself in trying to stamp out the fire – just as Major did. Meanwhile, a mass of Conservative MPs who belong in neither camp, but fear for their seats and prospects, then take fright.
At which point, some of those standing on the sidelines – i.e: who aren’t members of the Government and for whom Johnson has done no favours – step up the heckling and catcalls which they are beginning to direct at the Prime Minister.
Tobias Ellwood, who surfaced last weekend to criticise Johnson directly, is a former Minister. So is Mark Harper, who did so yesterday: indeed, Johnson’s former leadership rival is also a former Chief Whip.
For an ex-holder of the post to criticise the present one in the Chamber (see the TV footage of Mark Spencer facing away from Harper) was an event even more convention-challenging than Fletcher’s speech.
This takes us to the heart of the matter.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s desire to change the subject – and keep his head down; he wasn’t present for yesterday’s debate – is a strategic choice that will work. Such events as an invocation of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol will turn attention elsewhere.
But perhaps there’s actually no strategy at all, and Johnson is simply hoping that something else will turn up. In which case, his current team may lose the confidence of the Parliamentary Party as the blaze spreads.
For the standing of Spencer, the Chief Whip; of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House (and subject of our Moggcast) plus that of the Prime Minister himself is lower with their colleagues than it was before last week’s events took place.
How much so is hard to estimate – since, after all, our journalistic comrades have no interest in downplaying their impact, and many MPs dislike the media’s reporting even more than they doubt the Prime Minister’s grip.
But if there’s one thing Tory MPs hate, it’s being made fools of, as they see it, in front of their constituents by being marched to the top of the hill and then down again.
Especially over their own reputation – which is being trashed by much of the media as though the killing of David Amess, and the outbreak of soul-searching that followed it, had never happened. It took place less than a month ago.
Johnson, Spencer, Rees-Mogg, the Number Ten political team, Nigel Adams, the Prime Minister’s two new PPS’s: all are in the frame. No wonder that skilled anaesthetist, Steve Barclay, was dispatched into the Chamber yesterday to induce mass narcolepsy.
We are a very long way indeed from a leadership challenge, and for what it’s worth I think there’s unlikely to be one. But there is clearly danger for the Government if the fire continues to rage, and cross-burns amidst bigger ones – such as the cost of living.
If Johnson tries to sit this out, the risks are as I describe them, especially among younger MPs. If he doesn’t and, so to speak, “”does a Major”, he risks the fate of his supremely luckless (and, frankly, clueless) predecessor.
By which I don’t mean landslide humiliation at the next election but, rather, becoming the victim rather than the shaper of events. Meanwhile, older MPs and others would resist attempts to constrict their outside interests further.
The combation of the Nolan architecture that Major left, the expenses scandal and the further constraints on MPs that followed have already had an effect on recruitment – combined with social media abuse, trolling, stalking and real physical danger.
You may believe that being an MP should be a full-time job. I think that it can’t be one – at least, not under a constitution in which MPs can also be Ministers.
But whichever view you take, be in no doubt of the effect of further restrictions on outside earnings: fewer people with a background in the private sector will enter the Commons and more will leave faster.
Which would suit Labour just fine. We are still a long way from a Parliament made up mostly of MPs who couldn’t earn the same remuneration elsewhere – or else are so rich already than more restrictions won’t matter to them. Or else are fanatics and exhibitionists.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that we will soon see the worst of all worlds for the Conservatives: a leader adrift and a party alienated – with a Commons left with even more professional politicians and fewer elected representatives with outside expertise.
One thing will be sure in such an event, whatever happens to Johnson. The voters will not be satisfied by more of the same medicine – full-time politicians – which already leaves them retching.