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Fresh Tory sleaze row as Boris Johnson summons Cabinet to find a way out of crisis

Boris Johnson is facing a damaging ideological divide between his party old guard and his younger Red Wall Tories over sleeze, as today a new row erupted over MPs claiming rent on expenses.

The ‘Red Wall Tories’, who swept into the Commons from traditional working-class areas, are said to be furious at attempts by Tory grandees to save lobbying row MP Owen Patterson.

And it is said to be causing a split between the younger crop of MPs and the old school Conservatives, dubbed the ‘Red Trouser Tories’ – a nod to the type of clothing associated with upper-class men of a certain age. 

The growing ideological divide comes as Mr Johnson today attempted to sidestep a new Parliamentary sleaze row, while Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries risked ire from Red Wall Tories by attempting to downplay the scale of the backlash – saying the expenses scandal was ‘a billion times worse’.

Today it was revealed some 17 MPs – 15 Tory and two Labour – have used a loophole in parliamentary expenses rules that allows them to bill the taxpayer for the cost of renting a flat in London while making five-figure incomes from properties they own.

The wheeze – which does not break any expenses rules – has allowed them to claim more than £1.3million in the past five years, the i newspaper reported.

But Mr Johnson, questioned on the subject on a pre-election visit to south east London, said it was up the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner – who his party tried to undermine last week – to investigate.

It follows rows over attempts to circumvent punishment for then MP Owen Paterson for paid lobbying and then, this week, over former attorney general Geoffrey Cox working as a lawyer in the Caribbean during lockdown.

‘I do not in any way underestimate the vital importance of the transparency of MPs working number one for their constituents and not engaging in paid advocacy,’ Mr Johnson said.

‘We have got to make sure that the standards committee is allowed to get on and do its work and the Commissioner for Standards gets on and does her work.’     

The Prime Minister held a five-hour summit over wine and canapes at No10 last night to thrash out a plan of action after days of negative headlines about MPs lining their own pockets while serving in Parliament.

In his first intervention on the crisis, Rishi Sunak last night hinted at Cabinet divisions over the Prime Minister’s disastrous attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules.

In his first intervention on the crisis, Rishi Sunak last night hinted at Cabinet divisions over the Prime Minister’s disastrous attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules.

George Freeman

Nadine Dorries

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries told a Tory junior minister he was over-reacting when he voiced concerns of a voter backlash. In a WhatsApp message obtained by the Times she told George Freeman: ‘The expenses scandal, which began the day of the European elections in 2009 and ended on the day of the ballot, was a billion times worse than last week.

The PM was in Old Bexley and Sidcup ahead of the by-election triggered by the death of MP and former minister James Brokenshire. 

But it is the first of several by-elections, including that in Mr Paterson’s former North Shropshire seat. He resigned last week after an attempt to change parliamentary sleaze rules in his favour was reversed.

Red Wall Tories versus the Red Trouser Tories: What does it all mean?

Red Wall Tories are the crop of Conservative MPs who swept into the Commons in 2019 by taking seats in traditional Labour heartlands. 

The term Red Wall is used to describe the set of seats, mainly in the Midlands, Northern England, and North East Wales, which have historically been held by Labour.

Jonathan Gullis, who took Stoke-on-Trent North from Labour in 2019, didn't vote in last week's Leadsom Amendment -

Jonathan Gullis, who took Stoke-on-Trent North from Labour in 2019, didn’t vote in last week’s Leadsom Amendment –

But, spurred on by Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ message and a distrust of then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a large chunk of the Red Wall turned from red to blue.

Those Tories elected into the Red Wall seats face a long-term dilemma however. They are now representing traditional Labour voting working-class areas, while still having to remain loyal to the  Conservative party, its policy and its values.

And their seats are already thought to be in peril. A YouGov survey last month suggested the Tories could lose 32 Red Wall seats if there was an election today. 

The sleeze row is the type of scandal that risks driving a wedge between Red Wall Tories and their constituents. And the perception of a laissez faire attitude to sleeze may well be even more damaging.

MPs such as Jonathan Gullis, who took Stoke-on-Trent North from Labour in 2019, didn’t vote in last week’s Leadsom Amendment – which would have effectively saved lobbying row MP Owen Patterson from suspension.

Similarly, Jacob Young, who narrowly pipped Labour’s Anna Turley to the Red Wall seat of Redcar, did not vote on the amendment.

Jacob Young, who narrowly pipped Labour's Anna Turley to the Red Wall seat of Redcar, did not vote on the amendment

Jacob Young, who narrowly pipped Labour’s Anna Turley to the Red Wall seat of Redcar, did not vote on the amendment

Other Red Wall Tories did, however, vote in support of the amendment.

Bishop Auckland’s Dehenna Davison, Leigh’s James Grundy and Lee Anderson from Ashfield, all of whom won their seats in 2019, voted in favour.

Meanwhile, traditional Tories from safe seats have apparently attempted to play down the size of the backlash on the Tory sleeze row.

And in the divide they have earned themselves the name ‘red-corders’ – a reference to trousers associated with upper-class men of a certain age.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who holds the Tory stronghold of Mid-Bedfordshire with a 24,000 seat majority. 

In a WhatsApp message, obtained by the Times, she reportedly told MP George Freeman: ‘The expenses scandal, which began the day of the European elections in 2009 and ended on the day of the ballot, was a billion times worse than last week.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who holds the Tory stronghold of Mid-Bedfordshire with a 24,000 seat majority

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who holds the Tory stronghold of Mid-Bedfordshire with a 24,000 seat majority

‘The duck house was a Conservative. Every single MP was in the media. Half a dozen MPs were banged into prison. Many had to pay huge sums of money back in expenses claimed. We dominated … the front page of every single newspaper and news bulletin for five whole weeks. 

‘One year later, almost to the day, we monstered Labour in the local elections and David Cameron became PM breaking 13 years of Labour domination.

‘Last week wasn’t great, but it was a long way from the worst.’ 

 

The crisis has driven a wedge between Tory shire grandees and the younger generation of MPs in former Red Wall seats. 

The 2019 intake, many of whom are from more working class areas of the North of England are said to be the most furious at attempts to rescue Owen Paterson from punishment for lobbying that eventually saw him leave Parliament. 

They have been in Parliament for less time and have fewer outside financial interests and feel that older MPs from well-off safe seats are harming the party brand.

One minister told the Times it was ‘red-wallers versus the red-corders’ – a reference to trousers associated with upper-class men of a certain age.

An other was more succinct in telling the Mail it was a fight between ‘oiks and toffs’.

The PM last night summoned his Cabinet to Downing Street to find a way out of the sleaze mire engulfing the Conservative Party – as one of his most senior ministers played down the severity of the crisis.

The Prime Minister held a five-hour summit over wine and canapes at No10 last night to thrash out a plan of action after days of negative headlines about MPs lining their own pockets while serving in Parliament. 

It’s understood the meeting focused on his levelling up agenda, with ministers arriving carrying maps.

But the same evening Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries told a Tory junior minister he was over-reacting when he voiced concerns of a voter backlash.

In a WhatsApp message obtained by the Times she told George Freeman: ‘The expenses scandal, which began the day of the European elections in 2009 and ended on the day of the ballot, was a billion times worse than last week.

‘The duck house was a Conservative. Every single MP was in the media. Half a dozen MPs were banged into prison. Many had to pay huge sums of money back in expenses claimed. We dominated … the front page of every single newspaper and news bulletin for five whole weeks. 

‘One year later, almost to the day, we monstered Labour in the local elections and David Cameron became PM breaking 13 years of Labour domination.

‘Last week wasn’t great, but it was a long way from the worst.’ 

In his first intervention on the crisis, Rishi Sunak last night hinted at Cabinet divisions over the Prime Minister’s disastrous attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules.

During a round of media interviews yesterday, Mr Sunak said: ‘Reflecting over recent events – I think for us as a Government, it’s fair to say that we need to do better than we did last week, and we know that.’ 

Meanwhile, the Cabinet meeting was ostensibly focusing on the Levelling Up agenda with ministers due to lay out how their department is contributing to the drive. 

Originally the team had planned an away-day at Chequers, but plans for this were dropped and they met at Downing Street instead.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey arrived armed with an A3 map seemingly to help get her message across.

However, the political discussion is believed to have also addressed how to quell the rising tide of criticism about second jobs, conflicting interests and cronyism among MPs.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Housing Secretary Michael Gove and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke were among those seen departing Downing Street after gathering for crunch talks late into the night.

Allies of the Chancellor say he was dismayed by the decision last week to order Tory MPs to vote to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze laws in order to save Mr Paterson.

The Prime Minister won the vote after imposing a three-line whip. Mr Sunak was absent for the vote because he was at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow at the time.

But the plan was abandoned the following day in the face of a huge public outcry, prompting Mr Paterson to resign as an MP.

The episode has triggered a wave of sleaze allegations against the Conservatives and seen the outside interests of all MPs come under fresh scrutiny.

It has also resulted in a Tory slump in the polls, with Labour taking the lead for the first time in a year in several surveys.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak hinted at Cabinet divisions over the Prime Minister’s disastrous attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules

Chancellor Rishi Sunak hinted at Cabinet divisions over the Prime Minister’s disastrous attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for breaking lobbying rules

Boris Johnson (pictured on Armistice Day) and his senior team thrashed out their differences in a five-hour meeting last night after the Chancellor said the government 'needs to do better'

Boris Johnson (pictured on Armistice Day) and his senior team thrashed out their differences in a five-hour meeting last night after the Chancellor said the government ‘needs to do better’

Mr Sunak did not comment directly on the cases of either Mr Paterson or Sir Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general who has racked up more than £5.5million in outside earnings.

He said: ‘People will have different motivations for doing what they do, the pay is set by an independent body, that’s absolutely right.

‘And with regard to second jobs, there’s an independent process that we have that’s set by Parliament that governs all of those things. And it’s absolutely right that that process is followed to the letter.’

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay expressed ‘regret’ this week for the ‘mistake’ made in attempting to force through a change in the rules on the back of Mr Paterson’s case.

As condemnation grew, the PM moved to remind MPs that they should ‘devote yourself primarily and above all to your constituents’. But he proposed no new measures to restore public confidence. And he has so far refused to offer any apology for opening up a damaging line of attack for Labour.

An ally of Mr Sunak said he viewed last week’s events as ‘a mistake’ and believed ‘that point needs to be made by someone in the Cabinet’.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove seen leaving Downing Street after a five-hour Cabinet meeting, which was ostensibly focusing on the Levelling Up agenda

Housing Secretary Michael Gove seen leaving Downing Street after a five-hour Cabinet meeting, which was ostensibly focusing on the Levelling Up agenda

Health Secretary Sajid Javid smiles as he exits Downing Street after the mammoth five-hour talks

Health Secretary Sajid Javid smiles as he exits Downing Street after the mammoth five-hour talks

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace seen leaving 10 Downing Street last night. Originally the team had planned an away-day at Chequers, but plans for this were dropped and they met at Downing Street instead

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace seen leaving 10 Downing Street last night. Originally the team had planned an away-day at Chequers, but plans for this were dropped and they met at Downing Street instead

Environment Secretary George Eustice seen leaving Downing Street. The political discussion is believed to have also addressed to how to quell the rising tide of criticism about second jobs, conflicting interests and cronyism among MPs.

Environment Secretary George Eustice seen leaving Downing Street. The political discussion is believed to have also addressed to how to quell the rising tide of criticism about second jobs, conflicting interests and cronyism among MPs.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg leaving Downing Street last night after five-hour talks

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg leaving Downing Street last night after five-hour talks

No 10 sources played down suggestions of Cabinet divisions, saying: ‘The PM has said that it is vital MPs focus on their constituents and obey the rules. He thinks those who break the rules should be punished. We are all agreed on this.’

But another Cabinet source said the PM had ‘f***ed up’ and that the attempt to block the suspension of Mr Paterson looked ‘totally crooked’. Business minister Paul Scully hinted at anger over the damage caused by the sleaze row yesterday.

Questioned about the conduct of Sir Geoffrey, he told Sky News: ‘I’m not going to defend Geoffrey. I’m not going to say anything.’

Backbench Tories also voiced anger at the events of the last week, which have left many of them facing a backlash from constituents.

One former minister told the Daily Mail: ‘The last week has been a hideous nightmare – it is dirtying us all. When we made him PM we knew there would be periods of chaos but that was a price worth paying to defeat Corbyn and get Brexit done.

‘Those two tasks are completed now and his situation is more perilous than people think.’ 

Boris rejects by-election backlash fears over sleaze row

Boris Johnson tonight rejected suggestions that allegations of sleaze being levelled at his party could be reflected at the ballot box in upcoming by-elections.

The Prime Minister visited Sidcup on Friday afternoon, where voters will elect a new MP in December after the death of former minister James Brokenshire last month.

He was insistent that the strength of the local candidate in the Old Bexley and Sidcup constituency meant voters would back the Tories in the December 2 race.

But Lord Evans – chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life – said the public did care about these issues.

Speaking at an event for the Constitution Unit research centre, based at University College London, he said: ‘Standards matter for our democracy, they matter for our economic prosperity, and for our international influence and our foreign policy.

‘The past week has shown that standards do matter to the public. Ethical standards are important for making democracy work. The public does care about this.’

He added: ‘The evidence is that people do care about this, and have quite a sophisticated understanding of the issues involved.’

Lord Evans said he would like to see the Government ‘do more’ to ensure probity was upheld. 

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