A series of senior Conservatives have disowned Boris Johnson’s attempt to neuter parliament’s sleaze watchdog in a move which anti-corruption experts branded “a shocking blow to democracy in the UK”.
Mr Johnson secured an 18-vote majority in the Commons to prevent the suspension of a Conservative MP who breached parliament’s code of conduct and create a new Tory-dominated committee to dictate changes to the way standards allegations are investigated.
But more than 100 Tories did not vote and 13 defied a three-line whip to oppose the move, including Nigel Mills, who told The Independent it was “a dark day for integrity in our political system”.
Sir Keir Starmer branded the Tory actions “corruption” and accused the prime minister of “wallowing in sleaze”. Labour will boycott the “complete and utter sham” process approved by MPs on Wednesday, he said.
And with the SNP and Liberal Democrats also saying they will not provide MPs to serve on the new committee chaired by Conservative former minister John Whittingdale, parliamentary experts were urgently looking into whether it will be possible even to constitute the body, as the Commons vote specified that it must include four opposition MPs alongside five Tories.
Blasting Johnson as “a prime minister whose name is synonymous with sleaze, dodgy deals and hypocrisy”, Starmer said: “The rot starts at the top. This is the man who allows his ministers to breach with impunity the codes that govern public life; who thinks it should be one rule for him and his chums another for everyone else.”
The spectacular development was sparked by the recommendation of the existing Commons Standards Committee of a 30-day suspension for Tory MP Owen Paterson, after an investigation by independent standards commissioner Kathryn Stone found he lobbied government ministers and regulators on 14 occasions on behalf of two private companies which paid him more than £100,000 a year.
The MP claimed he had been subject to a “shockingly inadequate” process and said that the stress of the two-year investigation had contributed to the suicide of his wife Rose last year.
And Mr Johnson told the House of Commons that the rules needed to be changed to allow for an appeals process “as a matter of natural justice”.
But Standards Committee chair, Labour MP Chris Bryant, denied that Mr Paterson had been treated unfairly, telling MPs that it was clear he had engaged in a “corrupt practice” and “brought the House into disrepute”. His name now risks becoming “a byword for bad behaviour” as a result of today’s vote, said Mr Bryant.
The committee – made up of seven cross-party MPs and seven lay members – already provides an opportunity for appeal when it considers Ms Stone’s reports, he pointed out.
The 250-232 result of Wednesday’s vote in favour of an amendment tabled by Tory MP Andrea Leadsom was greeted by cries of “shame” from the opposition benches. The amendment sets aside the findings against Mr Paterson until Mr Whittingdale’s committee completes its review.
But the existing Standards Committee was quick to confirm that it will continue its work, and Ms Stone’s office told The Independent that she intends to remain in post until the end of her term in December 2022.
All but two of those backing the change were Conservatives – with the others being the DUP’s Sammy Wilson and former Tory Rob Roberts, sitting as an Independent since he was suspended from the Commons for sexually harassing staff.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner pointed out that ministers had insisted just weeks ago that it was not possible retrospectively to change the rules to allow voters in Mr Roberts’s Delyn constituency to recall him. She told MPs: “They can’t change the rules to stop sexual harassment, but they can change the rules to allow cash for access.”
Mr Mills told The Independent that the vote was “the wrong thing to do being done in the wrong way at the worst possible time”, and that the new committee would be viewed as “laughable” by voters.
And Jill Mortimer, the victor in this year’s Hartlepool by-election, was reported to have told Red Wall colleagues that the vote was “a colossal misjudgement”.
A first-time rebel, Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Aaron Bell, said: “I think the process of investigating allegations against MPs could usefully be reformed. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to do that to seek to alter a particular finding, which is why I voted against the government today.”
And High Peak MP Robert Largan said he would have voted to uphold Mr Paterson’s abstention if he had been able to attend parliament.
Among the rebels was influential former chief whip Mark Harper, who stood against Mr Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019.
Former minister Stephen Hammond said he had abstained as the amendment was “not consistent with the highest standards of public life”.
And another abstaining ex-minister, Gary Streeter, said it was “not our finest hour”, adding that the existing system worked well.
Tory peer Gavin Barwell, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff, said: “This is a terrible decision that will do real damage to reputation of parliament”. Ms May herself did not vote.
The director of the University of Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption, Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett, described it as “a shocking blow to democracy in the UK, at a moment when the world’s eyes are on us”.
Prof David-Barrett said: “The vote completely undermines the existing standards system, which was an example of international best practice combining self-regulation with independent investigation, and was already carrying out a review through a proper consultative process. And it replaces that with a politicised kangaroo court.”
And Tom Brake, director of the Unlock Democracy think tank and an MP for 22 years, said it was “a tragic day for democracy”.
“It is official,” said Mr Brake. “The UK has now achieved banana republic status thanks to a PM who personally gave a nod and a wink to Conservative MPs that egregious breaches of lobbying rules by Conservative MPs will be overlooked.”
The vote came just days after a scathing report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life called for rules on lobbying to be tightened up.
The committee’s former chair Sir Alistair Graham said the move to put the future of standards in the hands of a Tory-dominated panel was “truly shocking”, adding: “We must worry about what the electorate will think about the House of Commons behaving in such an inappropriate and partisan way.”
The general secretary of civil servants’ union the FDA, Dave Penman, denounced what he said was a “vicious and orchestrated campaign of personal attacks” against Ms Stone by MPs opposed to her findings in the Paterson investigation.
“The reality of today’s vote is that the government has whipped its MPs to exert party political control over the system for regulating the conduct of MPs,” he said. “This is a retrograde step which risks undermining the public’s confidence in the system for holding MPs to account.”
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “This is a shameful move by Conservative MPs to rewrite the rules to look after one of their own.
“It’s also sheer hypocrisy after ministers claimed they couldn’t change the rules retrospectively to allow Rob Roberts to be voted out by his constituents.”
Mr Paterson welcomed the result of the vote, saying: “All I have ever asked is to have the opportunity to make my case through a fair process.
“The decision today in parliament means that I will now have that opportunity. After two years of hell, I now have the opportunity to clear my name.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies