PMQs: Sleaze and second jobs offer a stick with which to beat Boris Johnson

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

“A coward, not a leader,” Keir Starmer branded Boris Johnson in a session more combative than usual. The pair met as the corruption scandal rumbles on with a crunch vote expected this afternoon. The Labour leader urged Johnson to “say sorry for trying to the green light to corruption” but no apology was given. He admitted only that it “certainly was a mistake” to conflate the Owen Paterson case, the MP found to have committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, with wider reforms. Starmer highlighted the apologies given by ministers, but not by the Prime Minister who, in turn, accused the Labour leader of his own “Mish-conduct” – reference to payments Starmer took from Mishcon de Reya since becoming an MP and discussions in 2017 on taking up a consultancy job with the law firm.

Labour has tabled a motion, to be voted on later, calling for a ban on “any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”. The party has said it is drafted in such a way as to make it binding. Johnson came out in favour of such a ban last night, but the Labour leader argued today that “waving one white flag won’t be enough to restore trust” – and he used the session to make this wider point. Reminding the Commons of the commitment to building a “Crossrail to the North”, Starmer asked whether voters would get what was promised. He accused the government of “rowing back on their promises to the North”, following reports of a watering down of the integrated rail plan, as Johnson said people would have to “wait and see” what is announced. “Trust matters,” Starmer told him.

Could the row over second jobs actually translate into electoral punishment for the Tories? Shady Covid contracts did not enable Labour to land a blow in the local elections earlier this year. But polls are shifting. Recent research by Savanta ComresOpinium and YouGov now show, respectively, a six-point lead for Labour, a one-point lead and the opposition party tied with the Conservatives – although it should be noted that this is due to a drop in the share of Conservative support rather than an increase for Labour. Whether the argument will have electoral implications is hard to judge this far from a general election but, either way, the row is not going away for Johnson. “There are plenty of opposition days to come,” Starmer warned. He intends to stick with this fruitful line of attack.

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