What did Owen Paterson do? Everything you need to know about Tory lobbying scandal

Probe into Owen Paterson’s activities led to ‘sleazy mess’ over disciplinary process

Adam Forrest,Sam Hancock
Monday 08 November 2021 11:06
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‘A bad day for democracy’: Tory MP slams government over sleaze vote

Boris Johnson’s government is mired in sleaze claims after No 10 tried to save Conservative Party MP Owen Paterson from suspension while seeking to rip up the Commons disciplinary process.

On Thursday Mr Paterson dramatically resigned as an MP after Mr Johnson U-turned and allowed a fresh vote on his suspension over a breach in lobbying rules, and retreated on plans to rewrite conduct rules.

So what was the Tory MP found to have done wrong? Why did the government U-turn? And how do the parties now agree on a disciplinary procedure following the saga described by Labour as a “sleazy mess”?

What did Owen Paterson do?

Kathyrn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, last week recommended a Commons ban of 30 sitting days for Mr Paterson in a report subsequently approved by a group of cross-party group of MPs on the standards committee.

Ms Stone’s inquiry found Mr Paterson repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods – in what the investigation report described as an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.

Mr Paterson argued that most of his approaches to officials fell within the “serious wrong” exemption in the lobbying rules, which permit an MP to approach officials with evidence of a “serious wrong or substantial injustice”.

But with the exception of one meeting about concerns over milk testing, the committee did not accept that Mr Paterson’s approaches fell within the exemption.

Why did Tory MPs vote to save Paterson? What did they vote for?

On Wednesday Conservative MPs were ordered by the party whips not to back the standards committee’s call for Mr Paterson to be suspended for 30 days – a ban which could have seen him face a recall petition from his constituents.

A planned yes-no vote on Mr Paterson’s suspension was superseded by Tory MP Dame Andrea Leadsom’s amendment to establish a new, Tory-led, committee to reconsider both Mr Paterson’s case and whether a new standards system is needed.

Backed by Downing Street, Tory MPs were told to vote for Dame Andrea’s amendment, a vote the government won 250 to 232 votes.

Some 13 Tories rebelled and dozens more abstained. As the backlash from Tory abstainers mounted on Thursday, Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, said: “We’ve lost the argument and indeed some of the moral high ground.”

So what exactly did the government want to change?

The amendment approved the set-up of a new oversight committee, which will be led by former Tory minister John Whittingdale. Although the idea is to have four Tory MPs and four opposition MPs look at the standards system, Whittingdale would have the deciding vote.

The plan was immediately thrown into chaos as Labour, the SNP and Liberal Democrats vowed to boycott it – depriving the new panel of any real cross-party authority.

The government has also been accused of trying to “bully” the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner – the independent investigator of cases of alleged misconduct – out of her job after a senior minister suggested Ms Stone “consider her position”.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “I think it’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, and we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process.”

Why did the government U-turn on its plan?

In an apparent climbdown on plans for a Tory-dominated committee to rewrite the conduct rules, Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs on Thursday morning that he would now seek cross-party talks on reform.

Mr Rees-Mogg conceded that the link between Mr Paterson’s case and need for wider reform “needs to be broken”, adding: “We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.”

No 10 then made clear at lunchtime that Mr Paterson will now have to face a fresh vote on the 30-day suspension.

A vote had been expected next Tuesday to reopen the MP’s case, with the same vote asking MPs if they wish to overturn the decision to establish the new committee.

The government’s thinking may have changed after a furious backlash from dozens of Tories. Jill Mortimer, one of the red wall Tories who rebelled, said: “This was a colossal misjudgement.”

Labour had also reportedly prepared adverts highlighting every Tory MP who voted in favour of the Leadsom amendment.

Why did Owen Paterson resign?

Mr Paterson announced on Thursday afternoon that he would resign as the MP after the government announced its U-turn and allowed a fresh vote on his lobbying activities.

The Tory MP had reportedly not been informed about Downing Street’s change of heart – only finding out from reporters while out shopping at a supermarket on Thursday.

Rather than face defeat and receive a 30-day suspension next week – which would have left him open to a recall petition – he decided to quit as the Tory MP for North Shropshire.

The man at the centre of the storm said he wanted to leave “the cruel world of politics”. Unrepentant, he said he was “unable to clear my name under the current system” and accused people of mocking his wife’s recent death.

What happens now?

Since resigning from public office, Mr Paterson announced he was also “stepping aside” from his “current consultancy work” – which got him into trouble in the first place.

“Thank you to the many people who have sent their kind wishes to me and my family this week,” the former MP tweeted. “At this difficult time, I will be stepping aside from my current consultancy work to focus on my family and suicide prevention.” Mr Paterson’s wife Rose died by suicide in June last year. She was 63.

Meanwhile, an emergency debate on standards and sleaze has been called by opposition parties and will take place in the Commons on 8 November. No official vote will happen as a result of the discussion, but there is speculation Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker, could make a statement on MPs’ conduct.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged Mr Johnson to both attend the debate and apologise to the country during it, in what he said was a chance “to go beyond just words”. Sir Keir added: “The prime minister must begin to clean out the filthy Augean stable he has created.”

However, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the trade secretary, subsequently signalled Mr Johnson will instead watch the debate from a television screen in his office, to allow him to get on with tasks “only the prime minister” can carry out.

Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain, who secured the three-hour emergency debate, said ahead of it that last week’s events were “just the latest example of political cronyism and corruption” – citing “dodgy” Covid contracts and Mr Johnson’s luxury Marbella holiday paid for by Zac Goldsmith, a Tory donor.

She added: “We need an independent public inquiry, with the powers and resources to get to the bottom of this Conservative sleaze scandal.”

Both Labour and the Lib Dems are calling for a public inquiry into the events that led to Mr Paterson’s resignation. However, Ms Trevelyan, speaking for the government on the morning of the debate, said she did not believe such a probe was necessary because there is “no wider problem” with corruption in the Conservatives.

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