There are many conclusions to draw following the recent Owen Paterson scandal. According to the British public, one obvious one is ‘Tory sleaze’ and it’s back worse than before. As such, there have been more stories in the press surrounding other sleaze scandals, such as those of MP Adam Afriyie possibly having to resign due to bankruptcy issues relating to tax, and the former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox having a second job in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, this should come as no surprise for many of us, given the standards of this government. It has been rocked by such problems for a while now, and it doesn’t seem that many in the Conservative Party care about fixing it. For example, there are accusations about government ministers having colluded with the former Daily Express owner (and Tory donor) Richard Desmond in relation to planning applications based in Tower Hamlets and relaxing lottery rules that would have financially benefitted him.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, both Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock were protected for behaviour that violated the rules the rest of us were meant to abide under – something made worse by how they were the ones who created those rules. Additionally, Rob Roberts was accused quite strongly of sexually predatory behaviour, but is still an MP and remains a party member, despite a cross-party effort calling on him to resign.
So, how sleazy is too much for this government?
Unfortunately, there is no amount of sleaze too great for this government.
To make matters worse, the only people who have been punished in this government so far are those who fail to toe the party line.
The most obvious casualty is Daniel Kawczynski. An MP who the party gave a warning to after having attended a National Conservative conference with the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italian politician Matteo Salvini (the former of whom Johnson had congratulated in 2018 upon his re-election). Despite these people being mainstream figures of the Western right (regardless of whether people agree with their views or not), much pressure was put on Johnson to punish Kawczynski for such association.
Meanwhile, Julian Lewis was disciplined, and his whip was temporarily removed because he dared to stand against Chris Grayling when it came to the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee. And, of course, Sir Desmond Swayne was condemned by government ministers for criticising the lockdown and COVID measures. However, Swayne, to his credit, refused to back down.
This all speaks to is a problem not only for the Conservative Party establishment but also for society in general: being politically incorrect is more damning than genuinely reprehensible conduct.
There’s no doubt many party members, myself included, are annoyed by this and wish the establishment of the party would do better and not just wallow in the spin doctors and PR to get them out of trouble over and over again.
However, if Labour thinks that they can win on this issue, they need to think again. This is simply because this is not the 1990s anymore, and Tony Blair stopped being in charge ages ago.
In its place, the circumstances are entirely different. Back in the 1990s, the deluge of Tory sleaze was new and concerning to many voters who looked to the Labour Party for something better.
Now, the Labour Party is in completely different waters, and not simply because of sleaze allegations sent their way by Tory mouthpieces in the media (which, of course, misses the point). Back in the 1990s, the people wanted a government free of sleaze – instead, they are now used to governments brimmed with it from head to toe, as that is what they have gotten over the past 30 years.
This is because, despite Tony Blair’s promise to clean up the problem, his government did anything but. Instead, it was rocked by scandals ranging from minor ones, like the Bernie Ecclestone affair and the 9/11 ‘bad news’ story, to major ones, like the fallout from the Iraq War and the 2009 expenses scandal that put a dent in trust in politics that has never fully healed.
Meanwhile, Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair – lacking both his charisma and popularity.
On top of this, just because they have a temporary lead in the polls for now and even a by-election scalp in the short term, in the long term, it may not even matter. Voters may be angry, justifiably so, but in the long term, they may be more forgiving to the government provided it does what it promised, especially on the likes of cultural security, immigration and the levelling up agenda.
Meanwhile, the Red Wall voters who abandoned Labour in the last general election aren’t going to be necessarily swayed because of a sleaze scandal – especially when that compares to the intergenerational anger many still feel towards the party for failing them consistently, of which attempting to scupper Brexit was the last straw.
So sadly, it seems, at least for now, that despite how damaging the scandal is, it won’t matter a lot in the long term, given the lack of popular support for the current Labour Party and the acceptance of many voters to this sort of behaviour over generations.
No wonder the government are taking this so casually.