John Major, the former Tory prime minister, has labelled the actions of Boris Johnson’s government odious, lawbreaking and very un-Conservative, in a withering attack on his successor in Number 10.
Major, prime minister from 1990-97, warned that Johnson’s conduct of government would cost the Conservatives dear, claiming some of his administration’s activities had been “politically corrupt”.
He was speaking at the end of a shambolic week for Johnson, whose attempts to change House of Commons standards rules and protect a Tory colleague accused of “corrupt” practices backfired.
Major also said Johnson would be “colossally stupid” if he followed through on his threat to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit agreement.
“There’s a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour and I think this is cutting through to the public,” Major told the BBC’s Today programme. “Much of what they are doing is very un-conservative in its behaviour.”
Major’s comments reflect anger among many Conservative MPs, who were dragooned into supporting Johnson’s botched plan to protect Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister, who broke Commons rules by lobbying ministers on behalf of two companies paying him £100,000 a year.
Paterson’s conduct was labelled “corrupt” by Chris Bryant, chair of the cross-party Commons standards committee. The former cabinet minister denies the charge, but Labour has launched a social media onslaught aimed at Johnson for alleged tolerating corruption.
“A number of Conservative MPs rebelled and very well done them,” Major said. “I wish more had had the courage to do so and I suspect they will in future because they were put in a dreadful position by the prime minister.”
Ministers have admitted they made a mistake in linking attempts to reform the House of Commons standards system with the individual case of Paterson, who has now quit as an MP.
Major has been a strong critic of Johnson in the past, particularly over Brexit, but his interventions in domestic politics are infrequent. In Saturday’s interview he was in a state of barely suppressed fury.
“This government has done a number of things that concern me deeply,” he said. “They have broken the law — I have in mind the illegal prorogation of parliament.” He added: “They have broken treaties — I have in the mind the Northern Ireland protocol.
“They have broken their word on many occasions — the one that I find most odious was the cutting of overseas aid, which was a statutory requirement to make and was cut long before parliament gave permission for it.”
Triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, the treaty override mechanism, would be “colossally stupid” he said. “It would be absurd,” he said. “Who negotiated the wretched protocol? Lord [David] Frost and the prime minister. They negotiated it. They signed it. Now they wish to break it.”
“At the moment we are negotiating over the protocol with all the subtlety of a brick.”
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