Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of attempting to “bully” the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone out of her job after a cabinet minister said she should consider her position.
Labour said it was “appalling” for the government to question the future of the standards watchdog after Conservative MPs vote to save Owen Paterson from a 30-day suspension and establish a new, Tory-led committee to review the standards system.
And a Whitehall union leader said that it formed “part of an orchestrated and deliberate attempt” to undermine the regulator.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng appeared to back Mr Paterson’s own call for Ms Stone to “consider her position” on Wednesday – making it clear the government wanted an overhaul of the standards system.
The business secretary told Sky News: “It’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, that we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process.”
Mr Kwarteng said it was “natural” for Ms Stone to review whether she should continue. “It’s up to the commissioner to decide her position … To consider her position is a natural thing. I’m not saying she should resign.”
However Downing Street notably failed to back up the business secretary’s comments.
Asked a few hours later, following Boris Johnson’s humiliating U-turn on rewriting sleaze rules, whether Ms Stone should consider her position, the PM’s official spokesman said: “That is entirely a matter for her.”
Labour’s shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire responded: “Having already ripped up the rules policing MP’s behaviour to protect one of their own, it is appalling that this corrupt government is now trying to bully the standards commissioner out of her job.”
Labour chair Anneliese Dodds later said ministers were “bullying” and criticising the “referee” when a Tory MP had been found to have done something wrong.
She told Sky News: “She shouldn’t be bullied by Conservative government – she was doing her job and doing it independent. It’s frankly appalling that you see those government figures seeking to bully her at this stage.”
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.”
Ms Stone’s office told The Independent that she intends to remain in post until the end of her term in December 2022, and the existing standards committee has insisted that it will continue its work.
Dozens of Tories abstained and 13 rebelled after being told to vote instead for an amendment to establish a new, Conservative-led, committee to reconsider both Mr Paterson’s case and whether a new standards system is needed.
But the plan to establish the new committee, to led by former Tory minister John Whittingdale, was thrown into chaos when Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems all vowed to boycott it.
Ms Dodds urged the government to perform a U-turn on its plan to overhaul standards process to help get parliament out of the “sleazy mess”.
“Really what they need to do is to look again. It’s not for Labour to answer the questions for the Conservative government – they’ve created this sleazy mess, now they’ve got to get our parliament out of it,” the Labour chair said.
Labour MP Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Nobody’s abolished the standards committee – it still exists.”
On the Tory plan for a new committee, he said: “We never set up a committee without cross-party agreement. How could you possibly change the rules without cross-party agreement? … The government has created a rod for its own back here. This will not end well.”
The row was triggered when Ms Stone’s investigation found he repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant, Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
Mr Paterson claimed the investigation was unfairly conducted and argued the manner in which it was carried out had played a “major role” in his wife Rose’s suicide last year.
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