Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major this morning became the latest figure to hit out at the current government over the the Owen Paterson scandal.
In an extraordinary broadside, Major – who lead the government and the party from 1990 to 1997 – called the current cabinet’s behaviour ‘very un-Conservative’ and argued some of their actions have been ‘politically corrupt’.
‘There’s a general whiff of “we are the master’s now” about their behaviour and I think this is cutting through to the public,’ Major told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme.
‘It seems to be me as a lifelong conservative that much of what they are doing is very un-conservative in its behaviour,’ he added.
His appearance on the show came after a Daily Mail poll found 57 percent of voters agreed with chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and former MI5 chief Lord Evans’ assertion that Britain could ‘slip into becoming a corrupt country’.
The poll was carried out during an extraordinary week in Westminster, which ended with former Cabinet minister Mr Paterson resigning as an MP – and senior Tories seriously questioning the judgment of Mr Johnson, who had backed him.
Major directly referenced the poll, and said: ‘I think the way the government handled [the Paterson scandal] was shameful and wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government.
‘A number of Conservative MPs rebelled and very well done them. I wish more had had the courage to do so and I suspect they will in future because they were put in a dreadful position by the Prime Minister.’
Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major (pictured in 2019, file photo) this morning became the latest figure to hit out at the current government over the the Owen Paterson scandal, lambasting Boris Johnson’s government over its actions
The Owen Paterson scandal led to accusations of a return to Tory corruption, voters believe MPs should be ordered to give up lucrative second jobs outside Parliament, the Daily Mail poll revealed
Mr Paterson had previously been found guilty of breaking Commons rules by lobbying for two firms that paid him £500,000, and was facing a 30-day suspension from the Commons as punishment.
In an attempt to let Mr Paterson off the hook, the Government backed and won a vote on plans to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules on Wednesday.
But the next morning, the Government was forced into a humiliating U-turn in the face a public outcry and anger among Tories, who had been forced to back the amendment.
With Mr Johnson’s support effectively withdrawn, Mr Paterson quit what he described as ‘the cruel world of politics’ on Thursday.
Sir John Major – whose own government was damaged by accusations of sleaze after the cash for questions scandal in 1994 before he went on to establish the Committee on Standards in Public Life – spoke at length about the assertion that Britain could slip towards corruption.
He told the BBC’s presenter Nick Robinson that he thinks the country has a long way to go before it is ‘financially corrupt on a large scale’.
However, he said that in terms of political behaviour, ‘I have a considerable amount of sympathy with what Lord Evans has said.
‘What has been happening is damaging at home and to our reputation overseas. And that matters. Our reputation overseas matters to us – and it should,’ he said.
Mr Major said there is a larger point away from the Owen Paterson scandal, and lambasted Boris Johnson’s government over its behaviour in general.
‘Parliament cannot be the plaything of any Prime Minister or indeed any government,’ he said. ‘This government has done a number of things that concern me deeply.
‘They have broken the law – I have in mind the illegal prorogation of Parliament for which I took to the Supreme Court. They have broken treaties – I have in the mind the Northern Ireland protocol.
‘They have broken their word on many occasions – the one that I find most odious was the cutting of overseas aid, which was a statutory requirement to make and was cut long before parliament gave permission for it.
‘And whenever they run up against difficulties against anybody – whether it’s 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, and that’s why I say it is profoundly un-Conservative and something I dislike intensely,’ he said.
In today’s Mail poll, 69 per cent of voters say the Prime Minister was wrong to order Tory MPs to vote in favour of letting Mr Paterson off
The JL Partners poll found the public believe Boris Johnson is leading the ‘sleaziest’ government in more than 40 years of British politics and is considered more than twice as ‘sleazy’ as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
But even amid widespread criticism of his bungled handling of an attempt to ditch the parliamentary standards system, the Prime Minister is still ahead of Sir Keir in the personal ratings war.
The poll for the Mail showed that nearly one in three (31 per cent) believe Mr Johnson’s administration is the worst behaved in terms of corruption, dating back to Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979.
A total of 22 per cent say Tony Blair’s government was ‘sleazy’, with 9 per cent of voters awarding the same badge of shame to David Cameron’s administration.
By contrast, the governments of former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and ex-Conservative PM Theresa May are seen as ‘sleazy’ by only 2 per cent of voters.
A total of 53 per cent say Mr Johnson is ‘sleazy’, but only 20 per cent place Sir Keir in the same category.
Similarly, nearly half (46 per cent) say the Conservative Party as a whole is ‘sleazy’, but only 17 per cent would apply the description to Labour.
A separate poll showed the Tories’ five-point lead over Labour a week ago has narrowed to just one point.
In today’s Mail poll, 69 per cent of voters say the Prime Minister was wrong to order Tory MPs to vote in favour of letting Mr Paterson off.
A total of 71 per cent say he should return the £500,000 he earned from his two ‘second jobs’.
More than six in ten (61 per cent) say all MPs should be banned from having second jobs and 81 per cent say an independent body led by a High Court judge should take over the task of dealing with corruption claims against them.
Asked if Mr Paterson had been right to claim that the inquiry into his behaviour contributed to the suicide of his wife, Rose, last year, 33 per cent say he was wrong to have done so; 15 per cent backed his decision.
A stark warning this week by former MI5 chief Lord Evans, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, that Britain could ‘slip into becoming a corrupt country’ struck a chord with the public.
A total of 53 per cent say Mr Johnson is ‘sleazy’, but only 20 per cent place Sir Keir in the same category
A total of 57 per cent agree and 18 per cent disagree.
But Sir Keir and Labour appear to have gained little from accusing Mr Johnson of ‘leading his Tory troops through the sewer’ in a doomed bid to save Mr Paterson.
Asked who is the better leader, 41 per cent choose Mr Johnson; 27 per cent choose Sir Keir.
The Conservatives are also seen as more competent than Labour, which is still seen as far more divided party.
James Johnson, of JL Partners, said: ‘People who have heard about the Paterson scandal are outraged by it, and are scathing about the way the Conservatives tried to scrap the system of dealing with complaints against MPs.
‘In the public’s eyes, this was merely to protect one of their own.’ He continued: The public – angry about this attempt to weaken Parliamentary scrutiny – want the system made much tougher.’
The pollster added: ‘So far, however, this episode has not been as damaging as [former senior No 10 aide] Dominic Cummings flouting Covid lockdown rules with his infamous trip to Barnard Castle – which felt much more personally insulting to voters.’
A total of 1,021 adults took part in the online survey in Britain on Wednesday.