Tories do their best to trash what remains of their reputation | John Crace

The committee on standards found Owen Paterson had committed an ‘egregious’ breach: it must be time for a new committee

Who would have guessed?

The debate on Andrea Leadsom’s amendment to set up another committee, top heavy with Tories and chaired by the inadvertently dominatrix-friendly John Whittingdale, to determine whether the committee on standards had reached the right verdict on Owen Paterson had nothing to do with many of Paterson’s friends believing the committee on standards had come to the wrong one.

It was a far, far nobler thing they were doing.

All the Conservatives wanted was to improve the right of appeal for Conservative MPs found in breach of parliamentary standards. That it was taking place on the very day the Commons was supposed to be voting to impose a 30-day suspension on Paterson – something that would ordinarily have gone through on the nod – was entirely coincidental.

At least that was roughly the explanation offered by Boris Johnson to Angela Rayner at prime minister’s questions.

The thing about Owen was that he seemed spectacularly dim. Off the scale dim. So stupid that he thought Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods were paying him more than 9k a month for his brilliance.

And because they quite liked him. Certainly not to seek any commercial advantage from paid advocacy.

So dim also, that it had never occurred to him that he might be able to get up in parliament or go to the media to blow the whistle on concerns of contaminated milks and dodgy meat, rather than have a quick word in a minister’s ear.

Especially when he was offering Randox and Lynn’s as solutions to these problems. So dim that he was found to have breached the rules at least 14 times and still couldn’t see what he had done wrong after the parliamentary commissioner on standards had repeatedly pointed it out to him.

This was also roughly the same argument that Jacob Rees-Mogg used to open the 90-minute debate as he chose to talk about the amendment as a fait accompli even before Leadsom had introduced it.

He wasn’t there to judge whether Paterson had breached the rules or not. That was not within his remit. All he was asking for was that another committee might be formed that would come to a different conclusion and let Owen off.

One that would make allowances for particularly thick MPs who were seemingly unable to grasp the consequences of their actions.

Predictably there were many interventions from opposition MPs, including Jess Phillips, Angela Eagle, Caroline Lucas and Margaret Hodge, all of whom were at pains to point out the obvious.

The whole thing stank. This was as clear an example of Tory sleaze as you could hope for. The government hadn’t got the result it had wanted from the investigation so it was going to set up another body who would come up with the correct one. One rule for MPs, one for the rest of the country. No wonder people’s trust in politicians was so low.

Rees-Mogg was horrified that anyone could believe this of him. The whole point of making this debate a party political issue was precisely because it wasn’t.

Labour were bound to vote against the amendment because they believed in the old-fashioned, tribal values of natural justice so it was important that the Tories changed the rules and Boris Johnson called a three-line whip to get his man off. And it was some kind of remainer plot as all the Tories who had been busted by the commissioner were leavers. Or something. It’s often hard to follow his train of thought as it isn’t always clear there is one.

Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, kept it short and sweet, pointing out that the Tories had never expressed any doubt about the probity of the system before.

Indeed they had gone out of their way to insist that sex-pest Tory MP Rob Roberts couldn’t be subject to a recall petition as it would be completely wrong to change the rules retrospectively. But now apparently it was OK. Go figure.

Much of the rest of the debate passed for surreal performance art. A government doing its best to trash what remained of it and parliament’s reputation, while daring the public not to notice.

We even got Leadsom claiming her new committee was politically balanced as it had more Tories on it than opposition MPs. The SNP said it wouldn’t be taking up its one token seat and Labour later followed suit.

So who is going to end up on the committee is a mystery.

Presumably Mark Francois, Craig Mackinlay and the four other Tory MPs whose suspensions had been recommended by the commissioner and had signed Leadsom’s amendment were free?

Not all Tories look quite so enthused about the standards coup. Peter Bottomley said he couldn’t vote for it and Aaron Bell said it would be moving the goalposts – it would make a change for Paterson from the badgers moving them.

Steve Baker offered the unusual insight that the new committee could make things worse for Paterson.

Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee, wound things up. More in sorrow than in anger. The process had been absolutely transparent. It had moved at Paterson’s pace. His witnesses had been heard. And he’d had right of reply at various stages along the way. It was calm, forensic and devastating.

Paterson, who had been sitting wordlessly on the Conservative benches throughout, looked as if the penny had finally dropped – and he had begun to question his innocence.

Though not enough to vote against himself. Which was just as well as the government only won its three-line whip by 18 votes. There were a few Tories that had voted against the amendment and more that had abstained. And most of those who had voted for it had done so knowing they had sold what remained of their souls.

Just when you think the government can’t get much worse, it finds new ways to surprise you.

A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


John Crace

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