STEPHEN GLOVER: The Owen Paterson scandal is dangerous proof this overmighty government is content to twist rules to suit its own grubby interests
Boris Johnson is a sensitive man who rightly resents unjustified criticism. There will be none of that on this page.
But it is hard to understand why the Prime Minister acted as he did this afternoon.
It was because of him that MPs voted to block the suspension of Tory MP and former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson from the House of Commons, and to overhaul Parliament’s disciplinary processes.
If Labour had not been so dozy and had got its act together, it could have defeated the Government since a sizeable number of Conservative MPs abstained or stayed away, and 13 of them voted against.
MPs voted to approve an amendment to reform the standards process of the House of Commons after Tory MP Owen Paterson was found to have broken lobbying rules
‘The charge is that Mr Johnson is prepared to re-write the regulations in order to protect one of his mates’
In fact, when he hastily and rashly raised his standard in Mr Paterson’s cause – after all the fatigue and exertions of Cop26 in Glasgow – the PM can’t have known that Labour would mount such a feeble opposition.
The vote was a needless gamble. As a result of Mr Paterson’s reprieve, and the tearing up of existing rules, there are now renewed cries of ‘Tory sleaze’. These carry some conviction, and may well reverberate outside Westminster.
The charge is that Mr Johnson is prepared to re-write the regulations in order to protect one of his mates.
This isn’t the first time that he has shown special favour to a cherished colleague in spite of the rules. Almost exactly a year ago, he refused to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel after she had been found guilty of a serious breach of the ministerial code.
An official report declared that she had bullied underlings. And, of course, Mr Johnson indulged Dominic Cummings after his then chief adviser had been comprehensively outed as a breaker of the lockdown rules he had helped to devise.
Six months later, Mr Cummings was judged a threat to the PM, and summarily disposed of.
Why did Boris tear up the rulebook to suit Mr Paterson? The two men aren’t particularly close, though they both manned the same barricades during the 2016 Referendum campaign, and may have bonded over Brexit.
One possibility is that although he can behave ruthlessly towards those who cross him – viz Mr Cummings – the Prime Minister is essentially a soft-hearted soul.
He probably genuinely felt that Mr Paterson has been hard done by.
He may well have been moved to sympathy because Owen Paterson’s wife, Rose, killed herself in June last year. According to Mr Paterson’s recent assertion, the protracted investigation into his alleged lobbying activities was ‘a major contributory factor’ in her suicide.
As I say, Boris can be a kind person, and it seems likely that his heart went out to Mr Paterson in his predicament and his grief.
But it is usually dangerous for a leader to be guided more by his heart than his head.
Although I believe that Mr Paterson is probably a pretty decent sort of fellow, I’m sure that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, was right to accuse him of ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy’ on behalf of two companies which together paid him over £100,000 a year.
Mr Paterson, and his defenders in Parliament and the Press, insist that he was justified in lobbying (which MPs are generally not supposed to do) because he was drawing attention to various health risks such as the presence of antibiotic residues in milk being sold in supermarkets. Such action does him credit.
But on various occasions Mr Paterson plainly broke the rules by lobbying for less disinterested reasons. For example, he sought to have the rivals of one of the two companies he worked for re-label their products so as not to compete.
On other occasions he held business meetings in Parliament in defiance of the regulations. His justification was that he needed to be in the Commons in order to be present for crucial votes.
However, Ms Stone found that meetings took place when no vote was imminent. Not a hanging offence, many will say, and that is true. Mr Paterson is not a bad man. He simply bent the rules to suit his generous employers.
Instead of protesting so loudly that he has been denied natural justice, he should have taken his punishment, as other miscreant MPs of both main parties have done before him.
It is very hard to take issue with the cross-party Commons Standards Committee which unanimously agreed with Ms Stone that Mr Paterson had broken the MPs’ Code of Conduct. Three Tories on the committee acknowledged the breach.
North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson was found to have broken lobbying rules by advocating in Parliament for two companies who paid him more than £100,000 a year
Yet the world would barely have noticed if he had quietly paid his penalty for lobbying on behalf of the two companies – a 30-day suspension from the Commons, and the possibility of a by-election in his North Shropshire constituency.
As it is, his refusal to accept his lot, coupled with Boris’s dramatic dash to his aid, have exposed the Tories to familiar, damaging accusations.
I don’t of course suggest that the Prime Minister was motivated solely by feelings of solidarity with Mr Paterson. It is likely that he has a bone or two of his own to pick with Ms Stone.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has found Mr Johnson guilty of breaching the MPs’ Code of Conduct on three occasions since 2018, though in every instance, unlike Mr Paterson’s case, her decision was overturned by the Standards Committee.
It was Ms Stone who launched an investigation into the funding of Boris’s 2019 holiday with Carrie in Mustique. I am sure that he has not forgotten, nor forgiven, that.
There may indeed be truth in the suggestion made by some Conservatives that Ms Stone has it in for them, and tends to be more indulgent of Labour. Between 2020 and 2021, she launched investigations into the alleged wrong-doing of 13 Tories compared with only five Labour MPs.
On the other hand, New Labour felt similarly got at by the then Parliamentary Commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, who harried several of its luminaries. She resigned in 2001 after accusing ministers and senior civil servants of waging a whispering campaign against her. Plus ca change.
Whatever the argument for reforming the present rules – and those accused should probably have a greater right of appeal than they do now – the solution is not to spare Mr Paterson from the punishment meted out by a system which this Government has hitherto tolerated.
Neither the rules nor the referee should be changed in the middle of a game.
It is as though a new referee in the shape of Boris Johnson has marched on to the pitch to replace the old referee, and in the process declared that a player who had been sent off the pitch for foul play should be reinstated.
Perhaps Mr Paterson is so obscure, and the facts so difficult to penetrate, that the damage to the Tories will be slight.
I think it’s more likely that yesterday’s ill-conceived vote will turn out to be an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound.
Boris Johnson probably didn’t act for bad reasons. In fact, he may have been largely motivated by good ones. He just didn’t think things through.
The danger is that more people will believe he doesn’t know right from wrong, and that this is an overmighty Government which is happy to twist the rules to suit its own interests.
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