It was while walking through the Commons lobby to vote to save their colleague, Owen Paterson, from immediate suspension after breaching lobbying rules that the reality dawned for many Tory MPs that they could be making a grave mistake.
“This is absolute madness,” a minister said, as the MPs begrudgingly carried out an order by No 10 and the whips’ office to block the sanction of Owen Paterson that would have potentially left him facing a byelection.
When the tricky issue of Paterson’s possible suspension reared its head last week, few expected the situation to end as it did. A two-year investigation into the North Shropshire MP by the standards commissioner and committee concluded that he should be banned from the Commons for 30 days.
Most Tories agreed it was a tricky position. Either they created a massive rift in the party by choosing to send down one of their own, or they stuck together and proceeded down a dangerous path risking allegations of “sleaze”.
The vote was scheduled for Wednesday, and Paterson, his allies and the government set about devising a plan to spare him by creating a new committee chaired by a Tory MP to reconsider the case, and review the entire sanction system. Most keenly, they wanted politicians who felt wrongly adjudicated against to be able to appeal against the decision.
Other ideas were discussed that involved limiting Paterson’s suspension. But these were rejected by the MP, who was steadfast in the belief that he deserved no punishment.
Bernard Jenkin was one of the four standards committee members in the Conservative party, but he recused himself from the investigation because he was a personal friend of Paterson, and his wife had been equally close to Paterson’s wife, who died in 2020. He was said by colleagues to have worked the hardest behind the scenes to help Paterson.
The deadline for tabling amendments to motions was around 7pm on Tuesday. Much deliberation had gone into whose name should be top of the amendment. It was decided that Paterson or one of his close allies such as Jenkin being listed as the proposer would look too much like a stitch-up. So the former business secretary Andrea Leadsom was called upon.
Leadsom, one of the organisers said, had “the veneer of respectability” – a former Commons leader who was well-respected by Tory and opposition MPs for her work in strengthening the system set up for investigating MPs accused of bullying and harassment.
She was called, on Tuesday afternoon, to the office of the chief whip, Mark Spencer, and accepted the suggestion that she should propose a new committee to reform the standards system.
She was given a word document with the text of the amendment, but to avoid appearing to let Paterson off the hook, insisted on a hard deadline for the committee to report by – February 2022. Meanwhile, the former culture secretary John Whittingdale was lined up to chair the committee. Though given he was isolating with Covid-19 he was not able to attend any in-person discussions.
One senior Tory claimed the Downing Street aide Henry Newman was crucial in pushing for the move to protect Paterson. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, worked particularly hard lobbying the 2019 intake of Tory MPs, who were less likely to know Paterson. “I’m going to be putting my neck on the line for someone who literally wouldn’t recognise me in a corridor,” one grumbled.
As the deadline for tabling amendments drew near Jenkin was in a state of agitation. Tory whips began ringing MPs and asking if they would back it, and later that evening – after the chief whip called Boris Johnson to assure him they had the numbers – the prime minister agreed to go ahead with the plan.
When the Leadsom amendment finally went in at 6pm, frantic conversations began in the Table Office responsible for receiving submissions for inclusion on the order paper.
After some tweaks the clerks pronounced it was “in order”, meaning it was able to be submitted. “One hurdle down,” a Paterson supporter said, cautiously. There was then a nervous wait overnight as the Speaker and more clerks decided whether the amendment should be selected. At 11:15am on Wednesday, the white smoke came.
Minutes later, a message was texted to Tory MPs telling them they faced a three-line whip. Many frantically skim-read the report, raising fresh concerns with their whips and saying they still believed Paterson was guilty. Some said that, despite reservations, they thought the standards system needed reform and so prepared to back the amendment, if grudgingly.
“He wasn’t being paid £100,000 just for his good looks, was he?” one MP said wryly, at around 2pm. The pressure continued to build as the slew of emails pouring in from outraged constituents gathered pace in the final hours before the vote. An anxious MP admitted: “My inbox is in meltdown. I know the usual suspects – the messages I’m getting aren’t coming from them.”
When the division bells rang just 247 Tories traipsed through the “aye” lobby in a total of 361. Ministers grumbled loudly about how they had been told to vote for a measure meant to provide “natural justice” they thought might do the opposite in Paterson’s case. Missing were several other ministers given permission to be away from the vote because they were meant to be on trips outside Westminster, but who were in fact hiding in their offices. Most were genuinely away on business.
As the result was read out, shivers were sent down the government frontbench as they realised the vote had only been won with a majority of 18. Cries of “shame” echoed around the chamber from furious opposition politicians who vowed to boycott the new committee, and comprehension dawned on the chief whip that the situation was unsustainable.
Depressed Tory MPs slunk off into the night, as their inboxes filled further with angry emails. One who reluctantly voted for the amendment said: “I really regret it.”
The recriminations were swift. Angela Richardson was sacked as a parliamentary private secretary to Michael Gove’s levelling up department, after refusing to follow the whips’ instructions and instead abstaining.
Alarm bells started ringing at No 10. The ever media-conscious prime minister would have been worried by the negative newspaper front pages that were landing that evening. “Shameless MPs sink back into sleaze,” proclaimed the Daily Mail.
Paterson’s series of interviews that evening only made matters worse. “He was acting like he’d got away with it,” a Tory observer noted.
The difficulty of reforming the standards system without cross-party consensus became increasingly obvious. Doubts grew among Leadsom and Whittingdale. They hoped the opposition boycott threats were just bluster. But that was not borne out.
Jenkin kept pushing, however, saying the committee would be fine because it could still be a quorate with only Conservative members. But his continued confidence was not shared by senior government figures. By Thursday morning, Johnson and Spencer had accepted that a massive mistake had been made.
While ministers were still out on the airwaves defending the previous night’s events, the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, prepared to make a humiliating climbdown at the same despatch box he had stood at more than 12 hours earlier defending the amendment.
At the weekly business questions Rees-Mogg admitted the new committee to scrutinise Paterson and the whole standards system could not work without buy-in from the other parties. Peter Bone, a veteran Tory backbencher, also revealed that overnight his constituency office in Wellingborough had been vandalised, with the words “Tory sleaze”.
Despite the high levels of anger the night before by those who felt strong-armed into supporting Paterson, it was nothing compared to the wave of fury unleashed when MPs realised it had all been in vain.
One said she had “been flung under a bus for one man” and asked “was it worth it?” Another, reeling just minutes after the U-turn, called it a “fucking disgraceful” situation and criticised the “huge party mismanagement” by the whips. Richardson was reinstated as Gove’s PPS.
Realising the game was up, Paterson announced on Thursday afternoon he would resign as an MP. It was reported that he had had the rug pulled from under his feet and was given no notice of Rees-Mogg’s statement, and had instead been told by a reporter who had phoned him for his reaction while he was out shopping.
But Downing Street insisted he had been told before the extraordinary U-turn was announced. Leadsom escaped to Cop26 in Glasgow and Johnson released a tribute to Paterson that evening, saying he was “very sad” his friend and colleague for decades was leaving parliament.