As world leaders depart from the COP26 summit in Glasgow, a row is brewing in the House of Commons on ‘Tory sleaze’. After the parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone found that former cabinet minister Owen Paterson had seriously breached the rules on lobbying, the standards committee recommended that Paterson should be suspended from parliament for 30 days. That recommendation went to a vote in the Commons on Wednesday and unusually (given the suspension ought to be a formality), the government moved to block it.
Ever since the report’s findings were made public, there has been talk of a ‘stitch-up’ among Tory backbenchers. The commissioner’s report found that Paterson had approached ministers and the Food Standards Agency on behalf of two companies he worked for, which amounted to ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute’.
But friends of Paterson say the investigation against him was flawed, he was raising important public health concerns and point to how Stone declined to interview witnesses who could have helped his defence. There is also sympathy among MPs for Paterson, who says the investigation contributed to his late wife’s suicide. It’s worth noting, however, that the committee that signed off the Paterson report was made up of cross-party MPs, including Conservatives. One of its members, Sir Bernard Jenkin, recused himself from the inquiry on the grounds that he is good friends with Paterson.
So, why did Tory MPs vote against its findings in the Commons? It was clear on Tuesday that the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg harboured concerns about the standards process. He told the ConservativeHome podcast: ‘Many people have been raising with me recently questions about the process that affected Owen Paterson’.
Then former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom put forward an amendment to the vote that ‘notes the potential defects in the standards system and therefore declines to consider the report.’ The amendment suggested launching a new committee of MPs (a majority of which would be Tory) to redraw the standards rules.
Senior Tory MPs were instructed by government whips to back it. This meant that the motion passed – by 250 votes to 232. But given a three-line whip was in place, it's hardly a show of support from the parliamentary party. Instead, the narrow victory points to the deep discomfort among senior Conservatives that they were asked to back it, with 38 Tory MPs abstaining and 13 voting against.
To say these MPs are unhappy would be an understatement. The backbencher Nigel Mills has described the vote as 'a dark day for any faith in the integrity of our democracy'. As Downing Street faces some of its worst front pages for months, government advisers and ministers privately share the concerns of those Tory MPs who have gone public to say this is a mistake that plays into the idea that it is 'one rule for them'. The row has already led to claims from the Labour frontbench that this is ‘a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture’ with MPs attempting to rig the system for their own benefit.
Given that both the SNP and Labour say they plan to abstain from the new committee, it's unclear how long it will even last. Will No. 10 really press on with a standards committee governed only by Tory MPs? The Labour party is already planning a long campaign of sleaze adverts targeting MPs as a result.
Is this all about Paterson? While the former cabinet minister's victory lap last night – telling Sky News he had no regrets and would do the same again – has hardly helped win over the doubters, the sleaze row is about far more than one case. It's about the general standards by which the whole Tory party plans to operate – or, more precisely, not operate – under.
There been discomfort for a while now on the Tory benches about the parliamentary commissioner of standards. Among the MPs who signed Leadsom’s amendment, six have had allegations against them upheld by the standards commissioner since last year. Stone has also been very critical of the Prime Minister – including his delay in saying who paid for his 2019 Christmas holiday to the Caribbean – with Johnson warned that he has an ‘over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House’. The fact that so many politicians – including the Prime Minister – could benefit from a rule change on standards makes this a political minefield.
Parliamentary standards reform is something many MPs would like to see. But there is a risk in using Paterson as the vehicle to drive change. Given more than one Tory MP could benefit from the changes, Downing Street risk a backlash if it looks as though this is about protecting political interests rather than overdue reform. Already this has moved to a much wider debate about whether the government and Tory party is attempting to rig the system to avoid scrutiny and look after their own.