Boris Johnson handles the scandal at the climate conference

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GLASGOW, Scotland – Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed back to the United Nations climate summit on Wednesday in an effort to persuade countries to make more meaningful commitments to curb global warming. But his resounding return to the world stage was nearly eclipsed by a growing scandal over the lucrative affairs of his Conservative party lawmakers.

Mr. Johnson isn’t the only world leader whose global ambitions have been overwhelmed by internal distractions. Some, like President Biden, have been hampered by political battles at home. Others, like Chinese President Xi Jinping, failed to show up as they struggled with the pandemic and other challenges.

But as a host, Johnson’s split-screen moment was particularly ruthless: instead of receiving praise, as he hoped, for his climate change diplomacy, he endured a series of unflattering revelations about Conservative Members of Parliament. The most recent embarrassment was a report that a former Attorney General did legal work for the British Virgin Islands from his Westminster office, in violation of House of Commons rules.

On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson did his best to change the subject.

“We have to do everything we can if we are to do what we came here for,” he said at a press conference ahead of the last two days of the climate conference, known as COP26. Mr. Johnson insisted on the possibility of reaching a historic agreement, although he warned that several countries have not fulfilled the necessary commitments.

“Will you help us take this opportunity or will you hinder yourself?” He said. “The risk of slipping back would be an absolute disaster.”

Even in Glasgow, Mr. Johnson faced as many questions about the scandal as he did about his efforts to combat climate change. He was asked whether it was appropriate for lawmakers to put their private interests ahead of their constituents (he said it wasn’t) and if he would apologize for the damage to the country’s reputation (he didn’t). On stage, trying to project statesmanship to a global audience, he instead found himself defending the honor of Great Britain.

“I sincerely believe that the UK is nowhere near a corrupt country,” Johnson said, “nor do I think our institutions are corrupt.”

The latest politician to be put under scrutiny for moonlighting is Geoffrey Cox, a lawyer who defends the British Virgin Islands in a British government corruption investigation. While Mr. Cox was not barred from practicing as a lawyer, the Times of London posted a video suggesting he was advising his clients during breaks to vote in Parliament.

Opposition Labor Party deputy leader Angela Rayner said she referred Cox’s case to the Standards Commissioner of Parliament, calling it a “blatant and blatant violation of the rules.”

In a statement, Mr. Cox denied any wrongdoing and said it should be up to his constituents to decide “whether or not to vote for someone who is a distinguished professional in his field and still practices that profession.”

In his appearance on Wednesday, Johnson defended the ability of lawmakers to work as lawyers, doctors or firefighters, but added, “Most importantly, those who break the rules must be investigated and should be punished.”

For the prime minister, it was the latest in a web of ethical traps that ensnared him and his party, from lucrative no-bid deals for companies during the pandemic to questions about whether a party donor paid to redecorate the house. prime minister’s apartment on Downing Street. (Mr. Johnson later picked up the bill himself.)

With a majority of 79 seats in Parliament, Johnson’s position is secure for now. But analysts said he risked alienating his party members in a crisis largely caused by himself. It was born out of his government’s ill-conceived attempt last week to protect another Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, by lobbying Conservative lawmakers to vote in favor of rewriting Parliament’s ethical rules.

When this sparked a storm of outrage from the opposition and the media, the government was forced to back down and Mr. Paterson resigned. The spotlight quickly shifted to other conservative lawmakers, some of whom earn more than $ 1 million annually from consulting contracts and other deals.

“The question is all about how this is applied,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, a London-based research institute. “The current system works if the government doesn’t dismantle it.”

The scandal is taking a toll on Johnson’s popularity, which has dropped to the lowest levels since his landslide victory in 2019. In a recent poll by the firm Ipsos Mori, the Labor Party outperformed the Conservative Party by one percentage point, 36 percent. to 35 percent. “Just apologize for the mess, Prime Minister,” said the normally loyal tabloid Daily Express.

“The fact that this goes beyond Johnson, and Johnson himself is involved in it, is really problematic for him,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “It allows the opposition to establish this pattern of behavior for both the leader and his troops.”

It’s also a great distraction at a time when Mr Johnson might have been working with foreign officials in Glasgow. Instead of staying for the conference, the prime minister left Scotland last week just two days after it started. Downing Street said he anticipated his return visit by a few days and lobbied recalcitrant leaders over the phone, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

After being criticized for flying to London last week in a private jet, this time Mr Johnson took a train to Glasgow. But critics said his commitment again, again was typical of his approach in the months leading up to the meeting. Mr. Johnson left most of the heavy diplomatic work to Alok Sharma, a former minister of affairs who he named COP26 president.

“From the beginning, the prime minister had an attention deficit,” said Tom Burke, former government adviser and chairman of E3G, an environmental research group. “He should have gone to some of the critical countries himself.”

In fact, when the biggest announcement came on Wednesday, it wasn’t Mr. Johnson who delivered it. The United States and China have said they agree do more to reduce emissions this decade, the result of about 30 meetings between the two countries, according to John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s climate envoy.

Mr. Johnson isn’t the only leader to deal with distractions. Mr. Biden arrived in Glasgow with the Democrats still grappling with the shape of his climate legislation. As he worked to project a message of renewed American engagement, experts said other countries understandably had doubts about his ability to deliver.

“The influence of the United States on the world stage is diminished by the uncertainty, among other global leaders, that President Biden will get the money to finance his greater ambition through Congress,” said John P. Holdren. former science adviser to President Barack Obama.

At least Mr. Biden has arrived in Glasgow. Xi of China, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil skipped the meeting, which climate experts say has reduced the likelihood of their countries making a revolutionary commitment, even as they have sent large delegations in Scotland.

While political storms in London weren’t a very big topic in corridors or meeting rooms in Glasgow, Burke said they would confirm the preconceptions of some of the other leaders – that Mr. Johnson is not a reliable counterpart. This could reduce their incentive to make larger climate commitments.

“My feeling is that he’s seen as a lightweight, and the other leaders don’t get the joke,” Burke said.

Stephen Castle contributed to the reportage from London.

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