As world leaders depart from the COP26 summit in Glasgow, a row is brewing in the House of Commons on ‘Tory sleaze’. After the parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone found that former cabinet minister Owen Paterson had seriously breached the rules on lobbying, the standards committee recommended that Paterson should be suspended from parliament for 30 days. That recommendation is due to go to a vote in the Commons today and unusually (given the suspension ought to be a formality), there are efforts underway by the government to block it.
Ever since the report’s findings were made public, there has been talk of a ‘stitch-up’ among Tory backbenchers. The commissioner’s report found that Paterson had approached ministers and the Food Standards Agency on behalf of two companies he worked for, which amounted to ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute’.
But friends of Paterson say the investigation against him was flawed, he was raising important public health concerns and point to how Stone declined to interview witnesses who could have helped his defence. There is also sympathy among MPs for Paterson, who says the investigation contributed to his late wife’s suicide.
It’s worth noting that the committee that signed off the Paterson report is made up of cross-party MPs, including Conservatives. One of its members, Sir Bernard Jenkin, recused himself from the inquiry on the grounds that he is good friends with Paterson. So, why are Tory MPs now going against it? It was clear on Tuesday that the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg harbours concerns about the standards process. He told the ConservativeHome podcast: ‘Many people have been raising with me recently questions about the process that affected Owen Paterson’.
Now former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has put forward an amendment to today’s vote that ‘notes the potential defects in the standards system and therefore declines to consider the report.’ The amendment also suggests launching a new committee of MPs (a majority of which would be Tory) to redraw the standards rules. Another amendment seeks to quash Paterson’s punishment on compassionate grounds after his wife’s death.
The suggestion today is that if Leadsom’s amendment is selected by the Speaker the government will back it. Senior Tory MPs say that they are being instructed by government whips to back it. This has already led to claims from the Labour frontbench that it would mean ‘a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture’ with MPs attempting to rig the system for their own benefit. There’s talk that the standards commissioner could even choose to step down if she feels undermined.
Is this all about Paterson? It’s worth noting that there has been discomfort for a while now on the Tory benches about the parliamentary commissioner of standards. Among the MPs who have signed Leadsom’s amendment, six have had allegations against them upheld by the standards commissioner since last year. Stone has also been very critical of the Prime Minister – including his delay in saying who paid for his 2019 Christmas holiday to the Caribbean – with Johnson warned that he has an ‘over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House’.
Parliamentary standards reform is something many MPs would like to see. But there is a risk in using Paterson as the vehicle to drive change. Given more than one Tory MP could benefit from it, Downing Street ought to tread carefully. It won’t take much for this to move to a much wider debate about whether the government and Tory party is attempting to rig the system to avoid scrutiny and look after their own.
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