What happened in the House of Commons today was so foul, the stench might never clear

Owen Paterson, having been found utterly in breach of the rules, has been protected by having his mates, and the government itself, just rip those rules up altogether

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Wednesday 03 November 2021 19:43 GMT
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They wore a face mask, most of them. What they needed was a gas mask. They stank the place out. What they did was so foul, so rancid, that the stench might never clear.

What’s often said about a lot of politicians, and not without good reason, is that they think there’s one set of rules for them and another for everybody else. But it turns out it’s worse than that. So much worse.

What happened on Wednesday afternoon in the House of Commons was absolutely not a politician making the rules then failing to abide by them himself. It was a politician, having been found utterly in breach of them, entirely and unequivocally bang to rights, and responding by having his mates, and the government itself, just rip the rules up altogether.

Most people have never heard of Owen Paterson. Most people, in that regard, are rather fortunate. He is an affable, very right-wing backbench MP who had a short career in the cabinet under David Cameron, which ended when it became clear he wasn’t good enough. None of that matters especially, as this stomach-turning cameo will remain the most notable thing he has ever done, or will ever do.

Events have been extensively detailed elsewhere so we will get through them as briefly as possible. Having been removed from his post at the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs, partly for claiming on live television, with regard to a planned cull, that “the badgers have moved the goalposts” (a deliberately jovial line for which he is arguably wrongly maligned), he then took up advisory roles at two companies, which operate very much in the area of his old department.

He engaged in what the Standards Committee, and the standards commissioner, have described, clearly, as “lobbying activities”, which include seeking to persuade ministers to use products made by a company who employed him. A clear breach of the rules.

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The independent standards commissioner recommended he be suspended for 30 days. But what happened instead is that 59 Tory MPs, 14 of whom have themselves had complaints against them upheld by the the Committee on Standards or the standards commissioner, tabled an amendment to have the process thrown out, the punishment overturned and the Standards Committee in effect replaced by a new body. And then the government imposed a three-line whip, instructing all Tory MPs to vote for the quite obviously outrageous amendment, which most of them duly did.

It’s so fetid it’s hard to know where to start. It is the obliterating – again – of the basic dignity of the House of Commons so that the usual cabal of hyper-right-wing Tory backbenchers can protect one of their own. It’s barely worth dwelling for long on the disgrace of it all, as it is so obvious.

The anger and the vitriol over it are already clear to see. A very small number of Tory MPs defied the three-line whip and voted against them. It takes courage to do that. A large number of Tory MPs have not been Tory MPs for very long. Breaking a three-line whip is tantamount to career suicide and it is possible to feel some sympathy for a young MP, not long into the job, that isn’t prepared to do such a thing.

The shame is on those who compelled them to do what they did. It is barely a fortnight since a member of parliament was killed. The motivations of the person who did it cannot be speculated upon, for legal reasons. But it can be stated as fact that it prompted a discussion that is still going on, about vitriol and abuse. And it caused a very great number of MPs to ponder whether it was worth doing what they do, in the face of the vitriol they receive.

And here they were, hundreds of them, being compelled to do something they knew to be appalling, so certain to outrage so many people who had voted for them. To soil themselves in such a way that they might never again be clean.

Paterson’s mates had already made their arguments in public prior to the debate beginning. Not many of them bothered to do so again. They know they bear no scrutiny whatsoever. They waffled and flanneled about “natural justice”, about the apparent outrage that various witnesses who gave evidence to the standards committee had given only “written statements”, not oral ones. That they had not been cross-examined. They made bogus analogies to what would happen in a court of law. That Paterson had had no right of appeal.

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They were all quietly, methodically and thoroughly despatched by the chairman of the Standards Committee, Chris Bryant. That, in a rather charged atmosphere in the House of Commons, he was heard in complete silence confirms what they all, at this point, guiltily knew. That they didn’t have a leg to stand on but were going to do it anyway. Even if the procedures are flawed, as many feel they are, to change them in such an opportunistic way, to the clear advantage and protection of a specific individual, is such an obvious outrage that they hardly bothered to contest it.

They also knew they didn’t need to. These were the mere formalities. They knew that power would do the talking. From this point on, matters proceeded down their very obvious path. The amendment passed. The opposition cried “shame” and “shameful”.

Owen Paterson sat there, slightly ashen-faced but otherwise unmoved throughout. One of the more remarkable aspects of working around politics and politicians is the sheer brass neck so many of them have, and are required to have. It is not in any way uncommon, for example, to be waiting in line to buy a Twix behind a man who, for example, knows that the person behind the till knows that he once got done for watching porn on his work computer, or much worse.

But they just style it out. In some ways, it’s to be admired. There is a very faint part of me that actually admires Neil Hamilton, who, at the time of writing, was announced as the leader of Ukip. A quarter of a century on from his spectacular public shaming, he’s just carrying on. He won’t be stopped.

And that’s what makes this particular incident so horrific. Owen Paterson won’t be shamed. He would rather his party, his government and, in some regard, the entire House of Commons carry his shame for him, because he is too cowardly to carry it himself. And in that regard his cowardice bears responsibility for the abuse, the vitriol, and the anger that will be directed, indeed is already being directed, at the fully 250 MPs who were strong-armed into voting to spare him.

Already it is being noted that it is the “most corrupt government there’s ever been”, that it does whatever it likes, and so on and so forth. The most damning aspect, however, may be that that is not altogether true. Governments don’t ordinarily shame themselves in this pyrotechnic fashion.

What is striking is that, in compelling the rank and file MPs to go through with something this disgraceful, Boris Johnson reveals himself to be more frightened of Paterson and his dreary band of acolytes than he is the people. And what is most depressing of all is that, when it comes to this kind of thing, Johnson has a knack for being right.

It’s not, in other words, that the stench might never go away. It’s that the people are so used to it they can’t even smell it anymore.

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