There is something telling in the failing efforts to get “Tory sleaze” to become a scandal.
To recap, a pompous posh man decided he was honourable, and thus at liberty to do what he wanted.
Owen Paterson earned large sums of money for effectively lobbying on behalf of private interests.
He won a client a government PPE contract, for example.
Like a lot of MPs, he thought this sideline was compatible with representing his constituency.
The ombudsman took a different view and threatened to expel him from the commons for a few weeks for conducting commercial affairs within parliament.
Boris Johnson found this all a bit too, you know, square and had the Commons vote to change the rules and save Paterson’s honour.
The opposition and media thought this alarmingly authoritarian, and by the next morning Boris couldn’t be bothered with the bad press.
With the government no longer rigging things in his favour, Paterson resigned.
Tory sleaze season isn’t what it used to be
Labour’s Keir Starmer, along with many others, thought the whole affair stank and a “Tory sleaze” season, of unknown length, was unofficially declared.
This made lots of people happy because they had a muscle memory of Tory sleaze and remembered it as a fun thing which led to people resigning.
It's not a mistake.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) November 7, 2021
Conveniently, the Daily Mail had another story. This one on the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox.
He earned £1 million pounds from a sideline that seems to have occupied more than 35 hours a week.
Which rather suggests representing the people of Torridge and West Devon requires no time at all.
More outrageous is that he is also known to have voted on parliamentary matters while staying in the Caribbean.
Which is neither in Torridge, West Devon nor Westminster.
The Liberal Democrats remembered Tory sleaze as being a good thing for winning seats off Conservatives in England.
Their North East Fife MP Wendy Chamberlain called for the Commons to sit through one of its myriad holidays in order to address the “crisis”.
By this time John Major had publicly despaired of Johnson, again, while Keir Starmer had a shot at outrage, which failed to convince.
Is it Tory sleaze when it’s not breaking the rules?
The problem is that while common sense suggests these people have behaved like greedy creeps abusing public office, very little of what’s happened is unusual or against the rules.
Paterson erred foolishly and if he’d kept quiet and gone off to detention, then this would have passed without notice.
Cox does seem to have taken the system for a ride, but it’s one the system tolerates.
The fact is the Commons operates as a bazaar, where public service and commercial opportunity are traded.
It always has done. Much as the Lords has always offered seats to the highest party bidder.
That is the British system. It has created the Britain of today.
EXCL: Sir Geoffrey Cox is tonight being referred to the standards commissioner by Labour after he appeared to use his Commons office to represent the British Virgin Islands in a corruption case against the UK government
Full story in @thetimes on Wednesday
— Henry Zeffman (@hzeffman) November 9, 2021
We have a representative system which gives MPs more than 110 days of recess, allows second jobs and permits outside earnings.
Being an MP is, by most definitions, a part time gig.
Geoffrey Cox knew that when after a long time in the law he stood for election 20 years ago. Much as Keir Starmer, after a long time in the law, did when he was elected in 2015.
The British parliament operates on the unsaid principle that the kind of personality that makes for a good MP is going to be involved in more things than politics.
Those who want power won’t be satisfied with the commons alone.
Boris Johnson doesn’t care
Opponents are trying to highlight Johnson’s casual attitude to rules, the law, parliament and, while we are at it, the Conservative party.
They want to portray him as a maverick.
The trouble is the rest of us see him as typical of the system.
This is after all the man who tried to prorogue parliament to stop it debating Brexit, only to be chastised by the Supreme Court.
Boris doesn’t much care, about anyone.
But then the same paper now chasing Cox responded to the Supreme Court ruling by calling the judges “enemies of the people”.
What does the British public make of UK Government plans to impose ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as chair of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom? We've seen some interesting poll findings which we'll share once they're published… pic.twitter.com/slS2pE0vW1
— Stop Funding Hate (@StopFundingHate) February 1, 2021
The British people might get sentimental about Magna Carta and the mother of parliaments, but they are not stupid.
We know government is a squalid pact between public and private in a dirty game for power.
We would like clean politicians who abide by all the rules and dedicate themselves to their constituency.
In fairness, we get a lot of them.
But we are under no illusions that power attracts rogues.
Given the election of Johnson first as mayor of London, then as Tory leader and finally as Prime Minister, despite twice being sacked from the cabinet (once for lying), fathering children out of wedlock and publicly being denounced as a charlatan, it seems we quite like a certain amount of moral dishevelment.
Which is why this sleaze season will be short lived, and will probably result in no more resignations.
And that may be okay, as we do not have the appetite for a big philosophical debate on the purpose of politicians in mature, stable democracies.
What’s more, we love a bit of pantomime.
And what’s not to like about Carry On Cox?