Paterson’s fair-weather friends keep well away from the standards debate | John Crace

Boris Johnson was among the Tory MPs who gave up defending the indefensible and absented themselves from the Commons

It was the absences that were most telling. There was, of course, no Boris Johnson. The prime minister is far too streetwise to return to the scene of the crime where he had whipped his MPs to rip up the rules on standards and set up a rigged committee to exonerate his old mucker Owen Paterson of multiple counts of paid advocacy. There was also no Andrea Leadsom, who had allowed herself to be used as the fall guy by proposing the amendment for the Potemkin court. There’s only so much embarrassment someone can take.

Nor were there many of Paterson’s most stalwart supporters who had argued most passionately in the original debate that their mate be given special treatment. That he had suffered a great wrong. No David Davis. No Bernard Jenkin. No Desmond Swayne. They had melted away into the ether. So brave. With friends like these …

Then, there were precious few Conservative MPs in the Commons for the start of the debate the government had done its utmost to avoid on rescinding the proceedings of the debacle nearly two weeks ago. Just 12 backbench MPs were present, of whom only two – Bill Cash and Christopher Chope, those patron saints of wrong causes – could be identified as diehard Paterson loyalists. On the frontbench there was just Jacob Rees-Mogg, until the chief whip, Mark Spencer, joined him after 15 minutes of the hour-long debate to take his punishment beating.

Rees-Mogg doesn’t normally do shame. His entitled, entirely self-constructed image as a brilliant parliamentarian doesn’t allow him to show such vulnerability. But he came as close to looking humiliated as you’re ever likely to see. As a fraud, Jakey is the genuine article. Normally you can rely on him to outstay his welcome at the dispatch box as he congratulates himself on his verbal dexterity. Now, even with two interventions, he was done in four minutes flat and at no point could he bring himself to make eye contact either with the opposition or his own benches.

This was a far cry from the Rees-Mogg who had opened the debate a fortnight ago. Then he had exercised his usual contemptuous, faux polite swagger. Here he seemed beaten, as if not even he expected his pathetic excuses to be believed, as he proceeded to make almost the exact opposite argument to the one he had made before. It was a matter of regret – very slight regret – that he had allowed his feelings for Paterson to cloud his judgment. The conflation of process and his friend’s case had been a mistake. But one made for the most noble of reasons.

The shadow leader of the Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, was having none of it. The conflation had been entirely Rees-Mogg’s own doing. After all, he had sworn blind at the time that he had given the matter his closest attention and had reassured himself that he had acted with the utmost propriety – that Paterson’s case was entirely coincidental to the need to reform the committee on standards. Even though Conservative MPs such as Peter Bottomley and Mark Harper had been at pains to point out it wasn’t. Rees-Mogg needed to apologise to parliament for bringing it into disrepute. How could we have reached a place where the prime minister had to reassure people the UK was not corrupt?

Next up was Theresa May. She had voted against the government the first time round because what it had done had been misplaced, ill-judged and just plain wrong. A rare flicker of a smile crossed her face. It’s not every day she allows herself to put the boot so hard into Boris. Her not so guilty pleasure. The SNP’s Pete Wishart called for Rees-Mogg to resign. Some hope. Jakey doesn’t have enough self-respect for that. He also urged the 2019 Tory intake – “some of whom are quite good” – not to be led astray by the old guard on the take. Shame there was only Alicia Kearns of the 2019 mob in to hear him.

Even so, Paterson did have his defenders. Namely Cash and Chope. Cash will go to his grave maintaining it was worthwhile trashing parliamentary procedures to get his friend off. As will Chope, though he did have a point that it had been necessary to force a debate on the issue rather than allow the government to change policy on the nod two weeks after it had voted to do the opposite.

Come the end, the Tory benches began to fill up. Word had got round that Rees-Mogg was under the cosh and they had come to enjoy the spectacle. But the motion was passed without a vote. Not even Cash and Chope could bring themselves to dissent. So much for their principles. There again, a lot of Tory MPs have now rediscovered their consciences after selling their souls on the altar of Boris’s contempt for the rules.

That wasn’t quite the end of sleaze for the day. Keir Starmer called a press conference to outline Labour’s proposals on second jobs. To spike his guns, Johnson quickly tweeted his own changes to the current system. Some Tory MPs inwardly seethed. Thanks to the idiotic attempt to save Paterson, they would now be short of cash.

But Boris would be just fine. He could still get on with earning his £800,000 advance for his Shakespeare book. After all, it wasn’t as if he was going to spend much time researching it – why break the habit of a lifetime? – so he couldn’t be accused of prioritising his outside interests.

  • John Crace and Zoe Williams will be live on stage in London at a Guardian Live event on 13 December. Join the conversation in-person or online – book tickets here.

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John Crace

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