Irish Times view on British parliamentary standards: Half-hearted reform

Johnson as PM shows contempt for institutions that sought to police his behaviour

Two weeks after his ill-fated attempt to save former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson from the consequences of breaching parliamentary standards, Boris Johnson has proposed a ban on MPs acting as paid consultants and on devoting too much time to second jobs.

Paterson faced a 30-day ban from parliament and the possibility of a recall byelection for his activities on behalf of two companies that paid him £100,000 a year.

Johnson sought to use the case of Paterson, whose wife took her own life while he was under investigation, to push through an overhaul of the parliamentary standards system and limit the powers of the commissioner who enforces it.

The about-turn is welcome, even if it is driven by the Conservatives’ drop in the polls and Johnson’s own slumping approval rating rather than a more profound change of heart. And although a ban on paid consultancy will stop some of the most egregious abuses of the current system, it is not enough to restore popular confidence in the probity and transparency of elected officials.

Johnson should implement the recommendations of a report by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life which called for the bodies governing standards to be put on a statutory footing.

It also proposed that the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests should not have to wait for the prime minister’s go-ahead before investigating possible breaches of the code.

As prime minister, Johnson has shown impatience with all constraints on his power and contempt for institutions that have sought to police his own behaviour and to establish who paid for his holidays and the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. The prime minister’s mishandling of the Paterson affair has moved a harsh spotlight onto the private affairs of Conservative MPs, one in four of whom have second jobs and none of whom will thank him for the extra scrutiny.

Johnson’s anxiety must be that his half-hearted attempt at reform will be enough to anger his own MPs but insufficient to satisfy the public’s anger over low standards in high places.