Less than 24 hours after Tory MPs were ordered to vote to spare Owen Paterson, the government has U-turned. The former minister had been given a one month suspension from the House of Commons by the standards committee over a breach of lobbying rules. No. 10 tried to block his suspension, instead setting up a new committee to overhaul the current disciplinary system.
Speaking in the Commons chamber this morning, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said that the government had abandoned the plans, which proposed a committee weighted in favour of Tory MPs. Rees-Mogg said that he accepted there is a 'strong feeling' over recent events and said that any reforms to the standards protocol needed to be separated from the case of Paterson — conceding that Wednesday's vote had 'conflated' the two: 'Therefore I and others will be looking at working on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases.'
It comes after deep unrest in the Tory party over Downing Street's decision to issue a three-line whip to back Paterson and install a new standards procedure decided by MPs. While the amendment passed, it was a narrow margin of victory for the government — 250 votes to 232 — with 38 Tory MPs abstaining and 13 voting against. Many of the MPs who voted with the government are privately unhappy. Speaking in the Commons, backbencher Peter Bone said that his office had been vandalised last night, linking it with his decision to vote with the government.
So, what next? The government's plans for a new committee appear dead on arrival. Although Rees-Mogg said the government would work to form a committee that has cross-party agreement and report back, this will be an uphill battle given that opposition parties have little desire to help ministers and instead have gone on the attack over Tory sleaze.
As for Paterson, any new committee or appeals system will not be retrospective. That means there will likely have to be another Commons vote when it comes to Paterson's recommended 30-day suspension. There is a sense among Tory MPs that Paterson could well lose this vote — leaving him vulnerable to recall and a potential by-election.
So, what has the government achieved? Other than angering Tory MPs and providing some of the worst headlines for months, very little. No. 10's U-turn means that, after all the furore, not much has changed since yesterday morning before the vote. Paterson could still be suspended from the Commons for 30 days and plans for a new standards procedure look more unlikely than ever. Many Conservatives are asking what exactly the past 24 hours was for — other than scoring a political own goal.