Analysis: PM finds himself embroiled in sleazegate scandal in front of world leaders

10 November 2021, 19:11

Boris Johnson&squot;s crucial speech at COP26 was overshadowed by the Tory "sleaze" scandal.
Boris Johnson's crucial speech at COP26 was overshadowed by the Tory "sleaze" scandal. Picture: Alamy

By Ben Kentish

This was supposed to be Boris Johnson’s global moment but instead he found himself embroiled in a "sleaze" scandal where he was forced to insist the UK is not corrupt, writes Ben Kentish.

In the many months – years, in fact – that the UK government spent planning the crucial COP26 climate summit, never would they have imagined that the British Prime Minister would end up using one of his two press conferences at the event to insist that the country he led was not corrupt.

And yet so it proved. With Boris Johnson and his party embroiled in a damaging sleaze row, the PM faced a difficult time in front of the world’s media fielding questions not just on global warming but also on the heat that he himself is facing.

Asked about the sleaze scandal, Mr Johnson insisted: "I genuinely believe the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, nor do I believe our institutions are corrupt. We have a very tough system of parliamentary democracy and scrutiny, not least by the media, and I think everyone can see that."

Read more: Boris Johnson: MPs 'should be punished' if they break rules on second jobs

The UK is 'not remotely a corrupt country', says Boris Johnson

What he said was far less astonishing than the fact that he, a sitting British Prime Minister, felt the need to say it at all. Yet the events of recent days have raised questions not just about the individuals concerned but about the integrity or otherwise of Parliament as a whole.

On the specifics of these matters, Mr Johnson was less forthcoming. He refused to comment on the British Virgin Islands-based labours of Sir Geoffrey Cox, insisted his own conduct was within the rules, rejected calls to ban MPs having second jobs and ultimately declined to offer much more than the hardly controversial statements that MPs should consider being a Member of Parliament to be their primary job, and that those found to have broken the rules should face “appropriate sanctions and punishment”.

Even on this, though, it must be pointed out that it is only a week since Mr Johnson was ordering his MPs to vote for a motion that would have helped then Tory colleague Owen Paterson avoid precisely that.

Read more: Does your MP have a second job? Find out here

Johnson: MPs who break rules on second jobs 'should be punished'

Asked whether he would apologise for his handling of that matter, Mr Johnson once again declined, although ministers admit both in private and in public that mistakes were made. No10 hopes that the sleaze row will quickly die down and go away – at least for now – but some Tory MPs, furious at the events of the last week, believe more contrition is needed.

On COP itself – undoubtedly the more important of the issues he was there to discuss – the Prime Minister offered a more downbeat assessment than during his press conference last week. Urging his fellow leaders to use the final days of the summit to grasp the opportunities available, he nevertheless admitted that much of the work that it was hoped would be completed in Glasgow will instead be left to a future date.

While Mr Johnson is right to say that climate change was not going to be stopped entirely over the course of a fortnight in Glasgow, and while the joint declaration by the US and China on Wednesday night will boost hopes that there is more still to be achieved in the last hours of COP26, it is looking ever more likely that the truly historic agreements needed are not going to be struck this time around. Eyes are already turning to COP27 in Egypt next year.

The difficultly for world leaders, and for the rest of humanity, is that time is rapidly running out.