Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab has ducked questions over why Boris Johnson has not personally apologised for his handling over the Owen Paterson lobbying row.
Parliament held an emergency debate yesterday on MPs’ standards following the scandal that later saw Paterson, a former cabinet minister, resign as an MP over his “egregious” breach of lobbying rules despite initial support from government.
Johnson was not present at the debate because he was visiting a hospital in the North East — an occasion that also attracted criticism after he was pictured not wearing a mask.
But Raab came out fighting for the prime minister, saying ministers had already apologised over its handling of the Paterson affair by saying it was wrong to “conflate” the individual case of an MP with a wider call to reform the system by which MPs’ behaviour is policed.
Asked on the BBC’s Today programme whether the prime minister was sorry for that mistake, Raab replied: “Well, I don’t answer for or speak for the prime minister directly.
“I’ve just been very clear on what the government has said, including Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, and I’m saying it as deputy prime minister and justice secretary as well.”
Pressed further on why the PM declined to apologise when asked to do so, Raab said: “I think we’ve all expressed regret.”
Presenter Mishal Husain interjected: “Except him.”
Raab responded: “Well, no...I’m speaking on behalf of the government, we take collective responsibility.
“We said that the it was a mistake to conflate those two aspects, the individual case, the wider underlying system and the process and the fairness with the right of appeal, and we’ve said that we regret that.”
The justice secretary also defended the prime minister over his decision not to attend the Commons for the emergency debate, a move that angered former Tory chief whip Mark Harper, who said: “If the team captain gets it wrong, he should come and apologise to the public and to this House. That is the right thing to do to demonstrate leadership.”
Raab said the PM had a “pre existing commitment” at Hexham General Hospital, Northumberland, on Monday, in which Johnson was pictured not wearing a mask.
The images sparked anger from observers who said Johnson had behaved “irresponsibly”.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said on Twitter: “So not only is Boris Johnson too cowardly to turn up to parliament to defend the sleazy corrupt government shenanigans of recent days. He’s now irresponsibly parading round a hospital without a mask. Patients and NHS staff deserve better than this.”
The Liberal Democrats tweeted: “Not only did Boris Johnson travel 280 miles to avoid a debate on his government’s sleaze and corruption, he couldn’t be bothered to wear a mask while walking around a hospital once he got there.”
Raab defended Johnson not wearing a mask, telling BBC Breakfast that he had followed the rules.
“I know the prime minister took the advice on the clinical setting that he was in and followed all the protocols and procedures that were applied there and that’s what everyone should do,” he said.
Asked about the guidance specifically and whether that meant he was not following the rules, Raab said: “No, precisely because, as you said, in the settings where it was required he did wear a mask.”
The NHS trust that runs the hospital also defended Johnson.
Northumbria NHS tweeted: “Please be assured that infection prevention and control remains an utmost priority for our trust. The prime minister Boris Johnson followed strict measures, including wearing a mask, in each clinical area he visited.”