Nothing more surely demonstrates the Conservative party’s grip on power than its apparent determination that Tory MPs should be able to breach long-agreed, long-respected, House of Commons standards on what constitutes fit and proper behaviour for an MP. The parliamentary party’s decision to save Owen Paterson from the consequences of his own behaviour is itself remarkable. That such efforts are now be supported by the government is something close to breath-taking. They do it because they calculate they can get away with it.
And they are, miserably, probably correct to conclude as much. If you wished a demonstration of Tory supremacy and Labour impotence you could hardly ask for better than this. There may often be something to be said for a government armed with a mighty parliamentary majority; there is often, as this squalid episode demonstrates, much to be said against it too.
No matter how much smoke is created, the fundamental truth is a simple one. A cross-party panel of MPs – including three Conservatives – and seven lay members concluded that Paterson was guilty of an ‘egregious case of paid advocacy’ and a ‘clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.’ This was a unanimous verdict.
There is an obvious word for this and an ordinary member of the public might well think an MP paid £100,000 by private corporate interests who then presses ministers and officials in ways other MPs conclude amount to promoting and seeking benefits on behalf of those interests is an MP guilty of something a little more serious than a technical breach of parliamentary codes. In that sense, the standards committee’s recommendation that Paterson be suspended from the Commons for 30 days (which could then lead to a recall petition and a possible by-election) amounts to a very mild form of censure.
Paterson, of course, complains he has been the victim of an unfair process. It might indeed have been more sensible for the committee to have interviewed some of the people Paterson cited in his defence (though it did receive written submissions from plenty of them). But since Paterson has been found to have made 14 improper approaches and seven of these were in writing, it is also reasonable for the committee to rule that ‘it is difficult to see what witness evidence could materially alter the commissioner’s findings as to whether these letters or emails breached the paid advocacy rule.’ Well, quite.
Now Tory MPs wish to change the rules of the game with a view to changing its result. Paterson is doubtless a popular member of the parliamentary party but even Conservative MPs might pause to wonder whether saving him from the consequences of his own actions – whether he believed he was breaking the rules or not – is really worth further lowering the esteem in which parliamentarians are held.
Paterson intimates that the investigation into his lobbying activity (not itself a scandal since MPs must be free, indeed are often required, to petition ministers and officials in the service of various interests, both individual and corporate) contributed to his wife’s suicide last year. This was a desperate tragedy but even if this were or could be proved to be the case it would have no bearing on the facts of the matter or the ruling reached by the standards committee.
Chums look after chums, of course, and so the government is prepared to support amendments which would, in effect, nullify the standards committee’s findings. As always, one need only ask how Tory MPs would react if this scandal involved a Labour MP receiving the backing of a Labour government to appreciate the intellectual impoverishment of their position.
If MPs were truly motivated by the perceived weaknesses in the system it is surprising they have done nothing to change it prior to one of their chum’s embarrassment. If they were truly motivated by something loftier than simply saving Paterson, they would accept that changes should only apply to future investigations, not past ones. And, of course, they might pause to wonder how, if Paterson has been so unfairly treated, every single member of the standards committee considered him guilty of abusing his privileges as an MP. There were no dissenting voices.
Outside interests and outside earnings are not themselves the problem. I think there is in fact much to be said in their favour. But there is a difference between advising a company how it might navigate Whitehall and advocating on that company’s behalf in an MP’s own dealings with ministers and civil servants. This is not – or should not be – a distinction beyond the grasp of, well, even MPs.
But if parliament really does wish to be viewed with a measure of contempt, the cynicism and chicanery on display this week demonstrates that a good portion of that contempt is rightly earned. It turns out badgers are not the only creatures capable of moving goalposts.