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Government U-turns on plan for new sleaze committee after widespread backlash

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 04 November 2021 13:57 GMT
Jacob Rees-Mogg announces U-turn over sleaze committee following backlash

In a humiliating U-turn, Boris Johnson has ditched plans for a Tory-dominated committee to rewrite House of Commons sleaze rules and will instead seek cross-party talks on changes.

And Conservative former minister Owen Paterson will now face a renewed vote on the 30-day suspension recommended by Westminster’s sleaze watchdog after he was found guilty of lobbying ministers and regulators on behalf of companies paying him more than £100,000 a year.

A vote expected next Tuesday will reopen the Paterson case, potentially exposing him to a by-election challenge. The same division will overturn last night’s decision to establish the new committee.

It is understood that, unlike yesterday, Tory MPs will not be whipped, so Mr Paterson’s sympahisers could still seek to vote down the punishment recommended by the Commons Standards Committee after he was found guilty of paid lobbying.

Wednesday’s vote prompted widespread outrage, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer branding it government “corruption” and the chair of the current Standards Committee, Chris Bryant, describing it as the kind of action that might be expected in Russia.

But Boris Johnson initially attempted to brazen the furore out, sending business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng onto the airwaves to defend his plans in a series of TV and radio interviews.

Shortly after Mr Kwarteng’s appearances, however, the PM accepted that it would not be possible to impose reforms through a Tory-only committee, after opposition parties made clear they would not take part.

The move was branded “pathetic” by Mr Rees-Mogg’s Labour shadow Thangam Debbonaire, who said it would not resolve the problems created by Wednesday’s vote.

“The government’s pathetic attempt to hide from their actions doesn’t fix anything,” she said.

“Last night, they voted to allow corruption to take place unimpeded at the heart of British politics.

“MPs must now vote to uphold the sanctions against Owen Paterson. Any other result will allow Boris Johnson to create one rule for Tory MPs, another for everyone else.”

The clumsy climbdown infuriated Tory MPs, many of whom were unhappy to be whipped by Boris Johnson into voting to spare their colleague his punishment.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, one of 13 MPs who defied the whip to vote against last night’s amendment, said: “This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament.

“My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this. This must not happen again.”

Guildford MP Angela Richardson was hurriedly reinstated to her job as a parliamentary aide to Michael Gove, after being sacked last night for abstaining, and veteran backbencher Peter Bone said his constituency office was vandalised after he voted to overrule the sanction.

Downing Street today said that the prime minister continues to have full confidence in chief whip Mark Spencer, part of whose job is to avoid the kind of debacle resulting from the decision to give full government support to an amendment in Paterson’s favour tabled by Tory backbencher Andrea Leadsom.

But Downing Street notably did not back up Mr Kwarteng’s suggestion that it was “difficult to see” a future for standards commissioner Kathryn Stone, whose report found that Paterson had breached the MPs’ code of conduct rule against “paid advocacy” by contacting ministers and regulators at least 14 times on behalf of Randox and Lynn Country Foods.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said of the business secretary’s remarks: “Make no mistake, this is not some accidental misspoken comment.

“This is part of an orchestrated and deliberate attempt to not only undermine the independent authority of a regulator but to influence decision-making and set a marker down for the future.”

But asked if Ms Stone should consider her position, the PM’s official spokesman said only: “That is entirely a matter for her.”

Mr Rees-Mogg admitted that the vote preventing Mr Paterson’s suspension had “created a certain amount of controversy” and said he wanted to “break the link” between his individual case and the government’s goal of adding an appeals mechanism to the Commons standards investigation process.

To incredulous laughter from the opposition benches in the chamber of the Commons, he told MPs: “It is important that standards in this House are done on a cross-party basis.

“The House voted very clearly yesterday to show that it is worried about the process of handling these complaints and that we would like an appeals system, but the change would need to be on a cross-party basis and that is clearly not the case.

“While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or apply retrospectively.

“I fear last night’s debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken.

“Therefore I and others will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases.

“We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.”

Mr Bryant told MPs that the government’s actions had left the Commons in a “quagmire”.

He said the standards committee - a cross-party panel of seven MPs and seven lay members - was ready to resubmit its report recommending a 30-day suspension for Mr Paterson, so MPs can vote again before they break for recess on Tuesday next week.

Liberal Democrats have secured permission from Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle for a three-hour debate on sleaze on the floor of the Commons next Monday.

The party’s chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “This corrupt government thought they could get away with rigging the system without anyone realising. Now they have been forced into a humiliating U-turn after a huge public backlash.

“The Tories are still leaving the door open to setting up a crony committee in future. We must not let them off the hook for future investigations, whether it’s into dodgy Covid contracts or the redecorating of Boris Johnson’s flat.”

Naomi Smith, CEO of internationalist campaign group Best for Britain, said: “Today we saw the cracks in the prime minister’s teflon coating when, on this rare occasion, the sleaze that embodies this government stuck.

“Despite the welcome U-turn, this will not be the end of this government’s attack on democracy, whose current legislative agenda will untether them from even the slightest form of accountability by parliament, by protest or at the polls”

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