“Shameless.” “Sleazy.” “Guilty.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced damning headlines on Thursday that cast his government in the worst possible light just as he browbeats world powers to show moral leadership over climate change.
The government tore up the rulebook on how parliament polices ethical lapses by its members late on Wednesday after a cross-party standards committee issued an excoriating report on illegal lobbying by Conservative MP Owen Paterson.
Rather than endorsing a recommended six-week suspension for Paterson, MPs opted to overhaul parliament’s internal disciplinary process.
Chris Bryant, the committee’s Labour chair, likened the move to Vladimir Putin’s Russia with leaders rigging the rules after the event to protect one of their own.
“It’s a perversion of justice,” he told BBC radio, expressing a view shared by Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, who accused the government of a series of actions “that stink of hypocrisy”.
“They started the week lecturing the world on going green while backing new oil and gas in the North Sea, and now they’re talking of ‘due process’ while voting to help one of their own escape punishment,” she told AFP.
“This is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ government whose credibility in both Britain and abroad is sinking fast,” she added.
The right-wing Daily Mail, normally a supportive voice of Johnson’s Conservatives, ran a blistering front page, linking the Paterson affair back to revelations from 2009 that many MPs had been cheating on their expenses.
That scandal, coming just after the global financial crisis, fed public disgust with politicians and fostered a climate of mistrust leading up to Britain’s shock decision in 2016 to quit the European Union.
The government later backtracked and said the proposed disciplinary reforms would not apply to the Paterson case.
But Johnson – a former journalist – separately faced further claims of double standards after he flew back from the COP26 summit in Glasgow to London late on Tuesday.
Reports said he returned for a reunion dinner at a men-only private club with old colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, including former editor Charles Moore – a sceptic about man-made climate change.
The main opposition Labour party accused Johnson of “staggering hypocrisy” after he spent two days in Glasgow demanding other leaders show more backbone on tackling climate change.
If the leaders “fluff our lines or miss our cue” on the planetary crisis, future generations “will not forgive us”, he said in opening a COP26 summit on Monday.
“They will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today — and they will be right,” he said.
Downing Street has defended Johnson’s decision to fly back to London rather than take the train, pleading time constraints and saying the carbon emissions were offset.
The UK government went into COP26 accused of hypocrisy on another front, after cutting its budget for foreign aid, having spent gargantuan sums on the coronavirus pandemic.
The cuts have added to difficulties for COP delegates from poorer countries struggling to obtain Covid-19 vaccines and facing sky-high costs to travel to Glasgow and stay anywhere close to Scotland’s biggest city.
Johnson was also distracted at the summit by an ongoing row with France, which accuses him of acting in bad faith over post-Brexit fishing rights.
In Glasgow, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng rejected the Russia comparison and said the rest of the world could still trust Britain.
The government is “completely focused on trying to restore a degree of integrity and also probity in public life”, he told the BBC.
Johnson had delivered on his election manifesto pledge to “get Brexit done”, Kwarteng said. “We’ve also made very explicit comments and commitments on climate change.
“Holding yourself to manifesto commitments and delivering those commitments, I think, is a feature of integrity.”
But Hannah Martin, co-director of the UK campaign group Green New Deal Rising, said the government had undermined its moral leadership on all fronts at a make-or-break juncture.
“It’s no wonder that young people don’t trust leaders to deliver on climate policies, when politicians are simultaneously closing ranks around an MP mired in corruption charges,” she told AFP.