Remember the collective shock that greeted the murder of David Amess less than a month ago? Back then, devastated parliamentarians of all stripes queued up to mourn their slain colleague as a victim of violent and unjustified public contempt towards working MPs.
Yet now, many of the same parliamentarians have taken a giant’s stride away from that reflective mood. Instead they have invited the public to stoke its contempt afresh. Not content with dismissing the motion to suspend the Conservative MP Owen Paterson over breaches of lobbying rules, today MPs overturned the entire system of parliamentary standards in place since the sleaze crisis of the 1990s. They did it, what’s more, with the government’s explicit encouragement.
To understand part of the reason why the Paterson affair stinks, try this simple exercise. Suppose that the same detailed charge sheet of rule-breaking that Paterson faced this week had been filed against a senior Labour MP. Suppose, also, that several Labour MPs then banded together and tried to get the charge sheet binned. Would the Conservative majority, not to mention Downing Street, then have rallied behind the accused Labour MP as they have done on Paterson’s behalf?
The answer is so obvious as to be barely worth stating. The Conservatives would have insisted that justice is blind, that due process must take its course, and that the good name of politics and parliament required it, perhaps even in the name of David Amess. But this is the exact reverse of what happened today, as the standards committee chair, Chris Bryant, calmly explained in the speech of his career. It was to no avail. The 250-232 vote to let Paterson off – which this effectively amounts to – was partisanship at its most self-interested. It was special favours for mates. It may have set back the fragile cause of political trust by a generation.
Over the past week, a formidable backbench Tory campaign built up behind the former Northern Ireland secretary’s indignant dismissal of the food-industry lobbying charges against him. The campaign had many causes, ranging from the compassionate to the downright partisan. The result was that backbenchers – mostly but not all on the right of the Tory party – closed ranks in support of Paterson’s attempt to override his proposed 30-day suspension from Westminster.
Today it became clear that this was no longer just a backbench campaign. It had become a government-led one. Just before the start of the scheduled 90-minute Commons debate on Paterson, Downing Street invented a new doctrine: that an MP facing workplace discipline charges should always be entitled to an appeal. On this basis, it instructed Tory MPs to vote Paterson off the hook so that a new process could be constructed.
This was specious opportunism to go with the favours for friends. It is based on a false narrative of the way Paterson’s case was treated by the parliamentary authorities. It is also at odds with the way that the same MPs, under a different process, handled the Rob Roberts case in May. Roberts, the Conservative MP for Delyn, faced allegations of sexual harassment. He was suspended from parliament for six weeks on a motion from the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, which passed without debate or division. Today, however, Rees-Mogg supported an amended motion that blocked the suspension of Paterson.
Anyone who bothers to read the standards committee report on the Paterson case, which was published last week, will see that Paterson had already exhausted one appeal and was about to bring a second. The investigation of the allegations against him, which were first reported by the Guardian in September 2019, was thorough and meticulous, almost to a fault. Paterson participated in it fully.
The standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, found multiple breaches of the paid lobbying rules. She then referred her report to the standards committee – which conducted its own, scarcely less meticulous, inquiry, before confirming that Paterson had breached the rules. In other words it was already a well-understood, step-by-step process in which the charges could have been dismissed at any point. They were not.
So why have Conservative MPs and their government stood behind Paterson? One reason is undoubtedly sympathy. Paterson’s wife took her own life last year. Boris Johnson took refuge in this tragedy when challenged by Labour’s Angela Rayner at prime minister’s questions today. But the causality is false. The case against Paterson was well under way before his wife’s death, and he has fought it tenaciously throughout. If there was a case for reducing the suspension on compassionate grounds, which perhaps there was, it has not been put forward.
A more powerful incentive may be that several Tory MPs earn a lot of income from outside interests in similar ways to Paterson. At the time the investigation began, Paterson was collecting about £100,000 a year for 16 hours’ work a month from his position as a consultant for the healthcare firm Randox, as well as £12,000 a year for four hours’ work every other month for Lynn’s Country Foods. Both companies are based in Northern Ireland.
According to Byline Times this week, several of the 59 Tory MPs who signed the original pro-Paterson amendment to the suspension motion have second jobs worth more than £1m a year in total. Six of the 59 also had allegations against them upheld by the standards commissioner in the past 12 months. Tory backbench dislike of the commissioner is widespread.
But the larger reality is that the defence of Paterson reflects the much wider culture of unaccountable Conservative partisanship that Johnson has brought into the heart of Britain’s post-Brexit public realm. That culture embraces the corruption of public appointments, contracts and honours, the curbing of the power of the courts, threats against the BBC, and the restriction of voting rights. Fundamental to every aspect of it is the purging of independent checks and balances, and the centralisation of power in Downing Street that was so evident in Johnson’s exoneration of Priti Patel over bullying allegations.
With exquisite timing, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, headed by the former MI5 chief Lord Evans, published a report this week detailing the many ways in which the Nolan inquiry sleaze findings of 1995 now need to be strengthened. One key area highlighted by the committee was transparency around lobbying – precisely the issue on which the Conservatives issued themselves a free pass this week. In his introduction to the Evans report, John Major observes that “the committee will never be redundant. A minority will evade or misinterpret the rules of proper behaviour.”
The truth must be faced. Since 1995 Britain has come full circle. The Nolan anti-sleaze era is over. After today’s hijack of the independent Commons process, Conservative MPs have deliberately stepped back to the corrupt past. The misconduct of the minority, about which Major writes, may now even become the misconduct of a majority, and it will have been led from the top.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian associate editor and columnist
• This article was amended on 5 November 2021. An earlier version said that Jacob Rees-Mogg had moved a motion that blocked the suspension of Owen Paterson. The motion moved by Rees-Mogg was that the house approved the report of the Committee on Standards and suspended Mr Paterson for 30 days; but he also spoke for Dame Andrea Leadsom’s amendment to that motion.