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Owen Paterson in October 2011, during his tenure as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Alamy Stock Photo
full fat u-turn

Sleaze, dairy lobbying, and Tory MPs: What is the Owen Paterson controversy about?

The former NI Secretary resigned this week, in what has become a huge controversy for Boris Johnson.

FORMER NORTHERN IRELAND Secretary Owen Paterson resigned as an MP this week after British Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson decided to hold a second vote over whether to suspend him for an alleged breach of Westminster lobbying rules.

After Tory MPs reacted to a report that said Paterson had breached lobbying rules by voting to amend standards procedures instead of suspending the MP for 30 days, the British public and political establishment was in uproar.

Some Tory MPs told the House of Commons their offices had been vandalised overnight after the vote on Wednesday. Others later said they hadn’t read the report that investigated Paterson’s lobbying role before voting.

Accusations of ‘sleaze’ came in thick and fast: the Times of London reported that Boris Johnson had underestimated the level of outrage at the Commons vote.

Let’s take a look at this controversy from the start.

How did this all begin?

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards – who investigates allegations of MPs breaching the UK’s parliamentary code of conduct – found that Owen Paterson had lobbied on behalf of two companies which had paid him more than £100,000 a year.

Those companies are Randox Health, which is a major supplier of Covid-19 PCR tests in the UK, and Belfast-based agri-food firm Lynn’s Country Foods.

In serious breaches such as this, the Commissioner refers cases to the Commons Standards Committee – a crossbench group of MPs and members of the public – who can then decide on a sanction.

The Commons Standards Committee said his actions were an “egregious” breach of the rules on paid advocacy by MPs and recommended that he should be suspended for 30 sitting days, or six weeks.

But Paterson rejected Commissioner Kathryn Stone’s findings, accusing her of making up her mind before she had even spoken to him, and making the serious accusation that the investigation had been a contributing factor in the suicide of his wife, Rose, in 2020.

“This is a biased process and not fair,” he said. 

Why did the case end up in the Commons?

Although the committee recommends the sanction, MPs have final approval.

The current chairman of the committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant, warned against voting the committee’s report – and therefore the sanction – down in what would be an unprecedented move in the committee’s 36-year history.

But Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg had said there was “precedence” for amending a motion to suspend an MP, saying it was last done in 1947.

What’s the argument against suspension?

Allies of Paterson tabled an amendment to the motion which would have approved his suspension to say that instead, a new committee – chaired by former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale – should be set up to overhaul the whole standards process, but also review Mr Paterson’s case specifically.

Tory MPs were whipped to vote for the amendment, which was put down by Dame Andrea Leadsom, but it still only passed with a slim majority of 18 as many Conservatives abstained.

The subsequent vote on the amended motion then also passed.

What did Boris Johnson say?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was insistent that the rule changes were not about Paterson’s individual case – despite the amendment specifically including his name and being put forward on a motion concerning him.

He said there were concerns about the right of appeal in the process, and that he wanted to ensure high standards were maintained.

The former Attorney General and former Tory MP Dominic Grieve also told the BBC that “it cannot escape notice that the Prime Minister is currently the subject of an investigation for failure to declare his interest by that same Commissioner.”

This is in relation to a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards investigation into Johnson for failing to declare a free holiday in a Marbella villa in October, which was funded by the family of Tory peer Zac Goldsmith.

Boris Johnson registered the nearly week-long stay in October in the register of ministerial interests, but Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said it had not been listed in the register of members’ interests.

In April this year, Labour MP Margaret Hodge reported Johnson to the Commissioner over the initial redecoration costs of his Downing Street flat, but it has not yet been announced whether the Commissioner will be looking into the allegations.

What went wrong?

Pressure began to mount on the British Government on Wednesday night, as the move was seen as a ploy to protect one of their own.

Labour launched attacks focussing on Tory sleaze, and even Conservative MPs said they thought there had been a serious misstep in how the situation had been handled.

The headlines were not kind to the vote: ‘Tories rip up Britain’s anti-sleaze rules to save guilty MP’ the i reported, while the Mail ran with ‘Shameless MPs sink back into sleaze’

Less than 24 hours after the vote, Rees-Mogg announced a u-turn, and No 10 said there would be a fresh vote on Paterson’s suspension and then they would separately look into introducing appeal mechanisms.

Tory MP Angela Richardson said on the night of the vote that she had abstained on the vote as a matter of principle, and was “aware that my job was at risk”, talking about her time as a parliamentary pivate secretary in the past tense.

Just over 16 hours later, she was reinstated in that role.

What happened to Paterson?

According to the BBC, Paterson had not been told about the reversal by No 10 and found out when he received a telephone call from BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg while he was in the supermarket.

Shortly afterwards, he released a statement announcing he would be resigning.

I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.

The Times of London has suggested that a Sky News interview with Paterson held on the eve of the House of Commons vote may have also had some influence on the decision to hold a repeat vote on Paterson’s suspension.

Paterson told Sky News that he “wouldn’t hesitate” to act in the same manner “tomorrow” in relation to the lobbying rules, which was said to have infuriated Johnson.

What is the fallout?

If Paterson and No 10 had accepted his suspension, he may have faced a by-election through a recall petition but with a 22,949 majority, it is likely he would have won it.

Now, Downing Street has endured a damaging news cycle, allegations of sleaze, and will now have to fight for North Shropshire with a new candidate.

Why has this happened?

Downing Street has said this was always about ensuring the standards process were robust, but Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings has alleged the PM has it out for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner due to his own record.

Johnson has been admonished four times by the Commissioner – three of those during Commissioner Stone’s tenure – and a decision on whether she will launch an investigation into the initial financing of the redecoration of his Downing Street flat is due.

Many of the Tory MPs who signed the initial amendment, or who voted for it, had also fallen foul of the Commissioner.

And the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: “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, but it’s up to the Commissioner to decide her position.”

But the PM’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister’s focus is on, as he set out yesterday, securing a proper appeal for this process, as there are other walks of life.”

He added: “The Prime Minister fully recognises the strength of feeling in the House and that there is not cross-party support for the changes that were seeking to be made, and therefore understands that it’s right to change the approach and to decouple those two issues.”

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha.

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