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Political editor Paul Francis analyses a tough week in politics for PM Boris Johnson at COP26


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A backlash over Boris's cunning plan to head off controversy over MPs' second jobs and a bad smell over sewage.

It's been another busy week for political editor Paul Francis...

Boris Johnson has caused fury in Kent's Tory shires over his handling of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal
Boris Johnson has caused fury in Kent's Tory shires over his handling of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal

When Boris Johnson was preparing for COP26, it was unlikely that among the list of potential pitfalls was having to fend off accusations that the UK was somehow institutionally corrupt.

Yet this is exactly what he was forced to do on his return trip to Glasgow for the crucial climate summit.

The rebuttal was, of course, nothing to do with zero carbon targets or fossil fuels.

The PM was obliged to spend some time answering questions about MPs’ second jobs and the fact that many were earning thousands of pounds outside their day job – you know, the one where they are there to represent constituents and hold the government to account.

It was a humiliating spectacle which other political leaders at the summit must have found perplexing.

Boris found himself answering questions about other subjects rather than the climate at COP26. Picture: Markus Spiske
Boris found himself answering questions about other subjects rather than the climate at COP26. Picture: Markus Spiske

Here was the UK’s Prime Minister tackling questions which had zero relevance to delicately poised negotiations about an agreement to help avert the planet from a climate crisis.

It was a measure of the stink around the row that has dogged the PM that the media has probably covered as much on the issue as the summit itself.

Out in Kent’s Tory shires, there is fury about it all. Their loyalty to the party is, for some, being stretched to breaking point.

You won’t get far trying to get anyone to put their head above the parapet and comment on the record.

Speaking off the record, the comments veer between exasperation, confusion and deep resentment.

Owen Paterson. Picture: PA Media
Owen Paterson. Picture: PA Media

Activists who pound the street at election time – for no financial reward – are aghast: how, they say, has the issue of MPs’ second jobs that many thought had been put to bed burst into the open?

More precisely, how has the PM managed to make such a mess of it?

Many lay the fault directly at Downing Street for its misplaced strategy of trying to save the political career of former minister and now former MP Owen Paterson.

There is genuine anger that the government calculated – catastrophically – that voters would approve of the cack-handed attempt to spare Paterson of his punishment for flagrantly ignoring the rules about lobbying.

Imagine if this had been put to one of those focus groups political parties spend so much money on.

It was reminiscent of the standing joke in the TV comedy Blackadder where the character Baldrick would, in the face of some looming disaster, utter that he had a cunning plan.

The most damaging part of this farce for the Conservatives is that some of the shine has come off the PM, who has been forgiven many things because of his ability to win elections.

A misguided attempt to help a colleague evade the sanctions imposed by the standards watchdog has forfeited some of the political capital.

On its own, it is not a seismic political earthquake but it has caused some worrying tremors for a Prime Minister whose instincts for what he considered an appropriate way out have proved wildly off-target.

SOS Whitstable in Tankerton protesting against Southern Water wastewater and sewage releases into the sea. Picture: Tom Banbury @tombanbury
SOS Whitstable in Tankerton protesting against Southern Water wastewater and sewage releases into the sea. Picture: Tom Banbury @tombanbury

On the issue of bad smells, the government saw off an attempt to toughen up its Environment Bill with measures that would have placed a legal obligation on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges.

And a bid to give the new regulator – the Office for Environmental Protection – more independence was also thwarted.

Still, the Bill has passed into law and while some may feel it lacks teeth, it requires companies to deliver a “progressive reduction” in sewage discharges by number, volume and adverse impacts on people and nature.

There will be a close eye on how Southern Water, fined £90 million for pumping raw sewage into waterways including the beaches around Thanet, performs against this measure.

Kent is among the worst counties in the country for the number of roadworks. Stock image
Kent is among the worst counties in the country for the number of roadworks. Stock image

Does Kent really have the worst roads in the country? Survey after survey suggests as much although, to be fair, the county has one of the largest road networks in the UK.

Another survey has more bad news for Kent's motorists, finding that it is ranked fourth worst when it comes to roadworks.

That's a lose-lose situation.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

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