Supporters of Owen Paterson said the rug had been pulled from under his feet by the abrupt announcement that the government was ditching plans for a new Tory-dominated committee to rewrite Commons standards procedures, which would have granted him a stay of execution after he was found guilty of paid lobbying.
And many backbenchers were furious to have been whipped to support the controversial plans in a Commons vote on Wednesday, only to be told to do the opposite next week after the government took fright at headlines blaring “Tory sleaze”.
One former minister branded No 10’s handling of the situation “incoherent”, while ex-chief whip Mark Harper said that the three-line whip ordered by Mr Johnson amounted to “one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a member of parliament”.
Another ex-minister told The Independent that MPs – particularly the younger 2019 intake in marginal red wall seats in the Midlands and the north – were “apoplectic with rage” at being ordered to vote in a way which gave the impression they were bending the rules to save their colleague.
“Some really new colleagues with wafer-thin majorities just cannot believe the ineptitude with which this has been handled,” said the MP. “It’s been awful, cr*p, useless.
“They feel they have been made to look stupid, they feel misled. A lot of people were unhappy before the vote but felt they had to follow the whip. Now people are saying their names have been tainted with the ‘sleaze’ tag as if it was 1992 all over again.”
There were questions raised over the apparent failure of chief whip Mark Spencer to warn the prime minister that his plans would only scrape through the Commons by a much-reduced majority, though No 10 insisted that the PM retained full confidence in his parliamentary fixer. MPs privately questioned Downing Street’s failure to foresee the boycott of its proposed committee by opposition parties, which left them in the impossible position of trying to impose changes to standards regulation on a single-party basis.
One MP told The Independent: “I hold the prime minister, chief whip and leader of the Commons [Jacob Rees-Mogg] jointly culpable. If I was the chief whip, I would hang my head in shame and resign. He was so bombastic on Wednesday morning about how essential it was to do this, telling anyone on the payroll that if they didn’t vote with the government they’d lose their jobs.”
Mr Paterson dramatically quit after 24 years as an MP after Mr Rees-Mogg unexpectedly announced that the government was tearing up plans approved by the house the previous night and instead seeking cross-party talks on changes to the way MPs accused of wrongdoing are investigated and punished.
It is understood that the North Shropshire MP was informed in advance of the climbdown, which left him again facing a 30-day suspension just 19 hours after he had claimed an early victory in his fight to overturn what he regarded as an unfair investigation which found that he lobbied ministers and regulators on behalf of private companies paying him more than £100,000 a year.
It is believed that Mr Paterson lost support in Mr Johnson’s inner circle after a provocative interview with TheDaily Telegraph, in which he portrayed himself as the victim of a travesty of justice and said that not only standards commissioner Kathryn Stone but also the cross-party standards committee of MPs and lay members “have to go”.
However, a source insisted that the decision to quit was made by the former minister and he was not pushed by No 10.
Announcing his resignation, Mr Paterson insisted he was “totally innocent” but said he had decided to leave “the cruel world of politics” because of the “indescribable nightmare” which he and his family had experienced over the two-year investigation, during which his wife Rose committed suicide.
Mr Johnson said he was “very sad”, but added: “I can understand why – after the tragic circumstances in which he lost his beloved wife Rose – he has decided to put his family first.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to apologise to the nation for a “grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend” after an “unbelievable 24 hours even by this government’s chaotic standards”. Sir Keir said his party would have “nothing to do” with the cross-party talks proposed by Mr Rees-Mogg, saying the government simply wanted to remove the independent commissioner and replace her with a panel of MPs to pass judgement on their colleagues’ behaviour.
The FDA union, which represents civil servants, accused the government of an “orchestrated and deliberate” attempt to undermine Ms Stone, after business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng suggested it was “difficult to see what [her] future is” after the Paterson investigation.
Veteran Tory backbencher Peter Bone, whose constituency office was vandalised after Wednesday’s vote to put Mr Paterson’s suspension on hold, told The Independent that the government’s handling of the issue was “a gift to the opposition”.
It was a “major cock-up” to allow necessary reforms to introduce the right of appeal in standards investigations to be mixed up with an individual case, said Mr Bone.
“The problem is sometimes that when people in government try to be clever and interfere in house business, it backfires on them,” he said.
Another long-standing Tory MP, Michael Fabricant, said: “It is such a shame and so contrary to natural justice that the issues of Owen Paterson and reform of House of Commons procedures were conflated in the way they were.”
The chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, former MI5 chief Lord Evans, said that the plan which Mr Johnson forced through the Commons on Wednesday was “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy” and branded the vote a “very serious and damaging moment for parliament and for public standards in this country”.
Former cabinet minister Stephen Crabb voiced the frustration and anger felt by his red wall colleagues.
“They came in as Boris’s people, wanting to show that they were part of a new generation in politics, post-Brexit, flying the flag for levelling up and all of those really noble and important things,” Mr Crabb told Times Radio.
“They looked on in previous years at the expenses stuff and other stuff that’s gone on. And they wanted never ever to be sullied with that kind of phenomenon. And some of those new MPs, relatively new MPs, the ones that were elected in 2019, do feel very cross that they’ve been dragged into this whole sleaze agenda.”
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