What are the long-term political implications of the government’s clown show over Owen Paterson? My guess is that voters won’t pay too much attention, but MPs certainly will. And that could matter at least as much.
Start with the public. Do voters feel angry that their Prime Minister doesn’t play by the rules — written and unwritten — of politics and government? There’s a lot to be angry about, and ripping up the rules against cash-for-lobbying certainly justifies rage. And maybe in time, the idea of the PM as leader of a privileged clique who don't play by the same rules as the rest of us will indeed prove harmful to the Conservatives’ vote. But so far, I don’t see abundant evidence that 'one rule for them' is achieving the salience that would be needed to make it a serious electoral issue. Maybe if Labour can succeed in keeping these stories alive — and eye-catching — over a sustained period, the issue will start to hurt.
But right now, most voters have bigger fish to fry: when it comes to what matters to the public, inflation at 5 per cent vs parliamentary rules on standards isn’t much of a contest. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s unique political appeal can survive and even thrive on the idea that he’s a rule-breaker. Put it another way, if the public as a whole was as angry as Twitter about the Prime Minister’s disregard for democratic norms (and the rule of law), then the 2019 general election would have had a rather different outcome.
But this isn’t one of those 'outside the beltway' cases that people (yes, me included) sometimes write when we want to sound worldly and wise about politics. Because the failed assault on the parliamentary standards regime does matter, it really does. First, it suggests a simple lack of competence in the government machine, a failure of planning and intelligence: did no one see the risks of depending on Labour and the SNP to help devise the new rulebook? Did it not occur to anyone that they might boycott the proposed cross-party committee? Then there’s the related failure of judgement: the public as a whole might not care much today, but some people certainly do: some of them sit in parliament, others edit newspapers. Thinking you can simply steamroll their concerns suggests that someone in No. 10 has overestimated their own power.
The third reason the debacle matters in the long term is its impact on No. 10's relationship with MPs. Many of those who voted with the Tory whip last night did so believing it was a dreadful error. 'A colossal act of self-harm' was the phrase of one member I spoke to yesterday. Of course, that raises a question for such MPs: why did you vote for something you knew was stupid and awful? But like it or not, our system of parliamentary government relies on MPs voting on things they sometimes think are stupid and awful. If every member voted purely on their conscience on every issue, no government would survive. To govern is to choose. To be an MP is to compromise.
And in this system, governments depend on their MPs’ willingness to compromise and support things they dislike. The Owen Paterson shambles will make it less likely that Tory MPs will be willing to do so when Boris Johnson asks next time.
That won’t manifest itself soon. Johnson remains the dominant figure in his party by some distance, and his vote-winning prowess means he has huge clout with his colleagues; no PM since Tony Blair has had such scope to tell his colleagues: 'I know you don’t want to do X but I do, and I get you elected so you have to do X.'
But all power wanes, in time. So far, Johnson has been able to rely on the loyalty of a generation of MPs who do indeed owe their seats to him, and who still hope of office in his government. In the last 24 hours, many new and newish MPs have learned a harsh lesson in the risks of putting too much faith in their leaders. Many have noted with interest the fate of Angela Richardson, the admirable MP for Guildford who refused to vote for the Leadsom amendment and so gave up her job as PPS to Michael Gove’s department.
Richardson is now back in her job, and Downing Street’s power over Conservative MPs has diminished. A Prime Minister who needs his party to do several things it is not wholly comfortable with — a tax-and-spend economic strategy; net zero — has just burned a lot of his colleagues’ goodwill. And all in a failed attempt to save Owen Paterson from sanctions he deserved, and bring down a standards regime that asked inconvenient questions about wallpaper.
All prime ministers use up their political capital: that’s the nature of governing. But rarely has one used up so much of that capital on such a pointless and misjudged exercise as this.