Former prime minister John Major has blasted Boris Johnson’s “politically corrupt” approach to government in the wake of the paid lobbying scandal.
Sir John, who led the government from 1990 to 1997, described his party’s conduct as “shameful” and said it had trashed the reputation of parliament.
It comes after Mr Johnson ordered his MPs to abolish a standards watchdog after it tried to punish one of his MPs for blatantly breaking lobbying rules.
Owen Paterson was facing a 30-day suspension after he was found to have been paid nearly three times his £82,000 salary to lobby ministers on behalf of two private companies.
“I think the way the government handled that was shameful, wrong and unworthy of this or indeed any government. It also had the effect of trashing the reputation of parliament,” Sir John said.
The former prime minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today the action of the current government was “damaging at home and to our reputation overseas”.
“I’m afraid that the government, with their over-large majority, do tend to treat parliament with contempt. And if that continues, it will end badly,” he said.
“They bypass parliament at will and the speaker has expressed his frustration about that on many occasions, and rightly so. But they also behaved badly in other ways that are perhaps politically corrupt.”
Sir John said that there is “a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour”, adding: “I have been a Conservative all my life and if I am concerned at how the government is behaving I suspect lots of other people are as well.
“It seems to me, as a lifelong Conservative, that much of what they are doing is un-Conservative in its behaviour.”
Sir John, whose government was itself undermined by sleaze rows, said: “When that happened I set up the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life to stop it, which has been a huge success.
“The striking difference is this: in the 1990s I set up a committee to tackle this sort of behaviour. Over the last few days we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour.
“Sleaze is unacceptable, was unacceptable when I was there, and I suffered a great deal of pain and anguish over it. It’s unacceptable today, and it needs to be stopped.”
Mr Paterson dramatically quit as an MP this week after the government dropped its support for him following a backlash.
It comes as another senior Conservative MP said Boris Johnson should take responsibility for the fiasco.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, said: “The prime minister is in charge of the party, in charge of the government, ultimately he must take responsibility.
Meanwhile a lay member of the Commons Committee on Standards took to the airwaves to defend the work of the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, who was subject to criticism by ministers.
Tammy Banks, one of the non-MPs to sit on the Standards Committee, said she had been “appalled” by attacks on the committee’s chief.
“She works hard, she does her best and above everything else she is fair,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Week In Westminster.
Under the government’s plan the standards committee would be replaced with a new committee that had an in-built Conservative majority. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have said they will boycott the committee, and the government has since said it will meet them for talks.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “For a former Conservative prime minister to describe this government as being politically corrupt is frankly astonishing and a damning indictment of the Tories under Boris Johnson.
“John Major is simply saying what millions of lifelong Tory voters are thinking: Boris Johnson’s Conservatives no longer represent them.
“This week’s scandal is just the latest in a long string of attempts to undermine our democratic traditions and shared values of decency, honesty and transparency.
“Right across former Conservative heartlands in the blue wall, people are sick of being taken for granted by a government mired in sleaze and corruption.”