Boris Johnson was branded a “coward not a leader” after failing to apologise for the Westminster sleaze row during an ill-tempered Prime Minister’s Questions.
Sir Keir Starmer doubted the Prime Minister is the “man to clean up Westminster” given he “led his troops through the sewers to cover up corruption and he can’t even say sorry”.
Conservative MP Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) later raised a point of order urging Labour leader Sir Keir to withdraw his “coward” jibe, with Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle noting: “Coward is not what is used in this House.”
Sir Keir replied: “I withdraw it, but he’s no leader.”
“I withdraw it, but he’s no leader”
The Labour leader had pressed Mr Johnson to follow some of his Conservative colleagues and apologise for the Owen Paterson affair.
Mr Johnson repeated it was a “mistake” to conflate the lobbying rule breach by former Tory minister Mr Paterson with overhauling the standards process more generally.
He added a cross-party approach is required on standards reform for MPs, before trying to switch the focus on to Sir Keir by claiming: “Perhaps he can clear up from his proposals whether he would continue to be able to take money as he did from Mishcon de Reya and other legal firms?”
Speaker Sir Lindsay repeatedly clashed with Mr Johnson on his attempts to question Sir Keir, at one stage telling him: “I’m not going to be challenged, you may be the Prime Minister of this country but in this House, I’m in charge.”
Sir Keir also told the Commons: “That’s not an apology. Everybody else has apologised for him, but he won’t apologise for himself.
“A coward, not a leader. Weeks defending corruption. Yesterday a screeching last-minute U-turn to avoid defeat on Labour’s plan to ban MPs from dodgy second contracts.
“But waving one white flag won’t be enough to restore trust and there are plenty of opposition days to come, and we will not let the Prime Minister water down the proposals or pretend that it’s job done.
“We still haven’t shut the revolving door where ministers are regulating a company one minute, and working for them the next. There are plenty of cases that still stain this House.”
The Labour leader asked if the Prime Minister would back “proper independence and powers for the business appointments committee and banning these job swaps”.
The Prime Minister said: “I’ve called, and indeed you have called Mr Speaker, for a cross-party approach to this.
“What I think we need to do is work together on the basis of the independent report by the committee on standards in public life to take things forward, and indeed to address the appeals process.
“But what I think everybody can see that in a classic lawyerly way, the right honourable gentleman is now trying to prosecute others for exactly the course of action that he took himself.”
He claimed Sir Keir’s “register is incomplete,” and asked: “Who paid the £25,000?”
Sir Keir later questioned if Mr Johnson would back an investigation into contracts given to Randox, the diagnostics company which employed Mr Paterson as a consultant, or “vote for another cover-up”.
Mr Johnson replied: “I’m very happy to publish all the details of the Randox contracts, which have been investigated by the National Audit Office already.”
Sir Keir, in his concluding remarks, said: “At the same time that his Government is engulfed in sleaze, they’re rowing back on the promises they made to the north, and it’s working people who are paying the price.
“Is it any wonder that people are beginning to think that the joke isn’t funny any more?”
Mr Johnson countered: “It’s plain from listening to (Sir Keir) that he seeks to criticise this Government while refusing to explain his own position. You’ve ruled on that, Mr Speaker, and I hear you, but his own Mish-conduct (sic) is absolutely clear to everybody.”
This prompted a further slapdown from Sir Lindsay, who said: “I don’t think this has done this House any good today.
“I’ll be quite honest, I think it’s been ill-tempered, I think it shows the public that this House has not learnt from the other week.
“I need this House to gain respect but it starts by individuals showing respect for each other.”