Owen Paterson row: Government U-turn over MPs' conduct plan

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Media caption,

MPs' vote created "a certain amount of controversy", says Jacob Rees-Mogg

The government has U-turned on its plans to overhaul the policing of MPs' conduct after a furious backlash.

On Wednesday, No 10 backed a shake-up of the standards watchdog and blocked the suspension of one of its own former ministers, Owen Paterson.

This sparked an angry reaction from Labour and some Tory MPs, who feared it would look like corruption to voters.

MPs will now vote again on Mr Paterson's recommended 30-day suspension for misusing his position.

Downing Street would not confirm the date of the vote, but said it would happen "as soon as possible".

Mr Paterson was found to have broken Parliament's rules by using his position as an MP to benefit two companies he was working for as an adviser, for which he was paid £100,000 a year on top of his Commons salary.

He insists he did nothing wrong, and on Wednesday the government backed moves by his Conservative colleagues to change the rules.

But opposition parties refused to cooperate, prompting a hasty rethink from Downing Street.

After the government's U-turn on Thursday, Boris Johnson's spokesman said the prime minister had "recognised the strength of feeling on all sides of the House" and "changed his mind when it became clear that a cross-party consensus on the changes was not possible".

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson "leading his troops through the sewer", claiming what had happened in the past 24 hours had been "corrupt".

'It has destroyed a lot of goodwill'

What looks like a shambles has caused problems in several different directions.

There is particular concern among Tory MPs elected for the first time in 2019 - a new generation questioning the attitudes and, some believe, entitlement of their political seniors.

In the words of one MP it has "destroyed a lot of goodwill" and, without doubt, will make them less willing to defend the government the next time something goes wrong.

Owen Paterson and his supporters, who genuinely believe he has been wronged, are now left dangling, and, arguably, there will now be even more attention and more anguish around his case.

Boris Johnson has left himself vulnerable to suspicions about his own personal interest in the system, which just happens to have found that he has made mistakes over the years.

Announcing the U-turn in Parliament, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said the overhaul would not now go ahead without cross-party support.

He told MPs there was a "strong feeling" that any change to the standards process should not just be based on Mr Paterson's case, and Wednesday's Commons vote had "conflated" the two issues.

"This link needs to be broken," he added, saying the government would come back to MPs with more detailed proposals after discussions with the other parties.

Another vote will also take place on whether Mr Paterson should be suspended.

Reacting to the U-turn, Sir Keir Starmer said: "What has happened in that last 24 hours is corrupt. There is no other word for it."

He added: "To rip the whole system up to protect [Mr Paterson] is corrupt. There is no point shilly-shallying around and pretending it is something else. This goes to the very very top."

An emergency Commons debate on the issue will take place on Monday, after the Liberal Democrats requested it.

Media caption,

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accuses the PM of “leading his troops through the sewer”.

The Commons Standards Committee concluded last week that Tory MP Mr Paterson misused his position as an MP to benefit two firms he worked for, after a damning report on his behaviour by standards commissioner Kathryn Stone.

They recommended he be suspended from the Commons for 30 sitting days - a sanction that could also lead to a recall petition in his constituency, and the possibility of him facing a by-election.

Such recommendations - which have to be signed off by MPs - are usually accepted without much discussion.

But on Wednesday, the government ordered its members to vote for an amendment to halt Mr Paterson's case and to rejig the standards system.

Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems voted against the plans, along with 13 Conservative MPs, while dozens of Tories abstained. But it was carried by 18 votes to cries of "shame" from the opposition benches.

What did Owen Paterson do?

Image source, House of Commons
Image caption,
Owen Paterson watched on in the Commons as MPs debated whether to suspend him

Mr Paterson has been a paid consultant for clinical diagnostics company Randox since 2015 and to meat distributer Lynn's Country Foods since 2016.

MPs are allowed to have these jobs, but are not allowed to be paid advocates - using their influence in Whitehall for the company's gain.

The committee concluded that Mr Paterson had breached this rule on paid advocacy by:

  • Making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk
  • Making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn's Country Foods
  • Making four approaches to Ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology

Mr Paterson was also found to have broken conduct rules by:

  • Failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn's Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency
  • Using his parliamentary office on 16 occasions for business meetings with his clients
  • And in sending two letters relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper

The SNP's Pete Wishart also said the incident had left MPs with "absolutely no trust from any of the members of the public at all".

And Tory MP Mark Harper - who voted against the government - called it "one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament", adding: "My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this. This must not happen again."

Meanwhile, a junior minister who lost her job after breaking with the government ranks to abstain on the vote, Angela Richardson, was reappointed to her post in the Department for Levelling Up.