Critics hit out at the effort to ‘weaken independent scrutiny’ with Keir Starmer saying that Owen Paterson is ‘not fit to serve as MP’
The PM tore up the independent system for combating sleaze within parliament on Wednesday as he threw the government’s weight behind protecting a Tory MP who was found to have repeatedly breached lobbying rules.
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has accused the prime minister of corruption after Johnson had encouraged his MPs to halt Owen Paterson’s parliamentary suspension and demand a review of the entire MP standards process to allow for appeals.
However, some Tory MPs declined to back the prime minister, with several saying that they had been deluged by angry messages from constituents.
One Conservative, Angela Richardson, who has been an MP for Guildford since 2019 and an aide to Michael Gove, confirmed that she had departed from her role as a parliamentary aide following her decision to abstain from the vote. She tweeted: “I abstained … aware that my job was at risk, but it was a matter of principle for me.”
This comes after Ex-Conservative cabinet minister Owen Paterson is facing a 30-day ban from the House of Commons for breaching lobbying rules as a result of his paid consultancy work on behalf of two different companies. But Tory MPs were seeking to save him from his immediate suspension from Commons.
It comes as Mr Johnson is himself facing what would be a fourth inquiry by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner who recommended Paterson be suspended for 30 days for breaking lobbying rules, into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment.
On a day of extraordinary drama within Westminster, MPs had voted by 250 to 232 in support of a government-backed amendment to set aside the ruling against Owen Paterson and overhaul the independent disciplinary system for MPs on Wednesday, which the prime minister has claimed was a matter of “natural justice”.
The government’s majority had been reduced from 79 to just 18, however, underlining the unhappiness of many Conservative MPs. The vote result was met with cries of “shame” from members of the opposition.
After the vote, Mr Paterson, who had previously suggested that the investigation into his lobbying had contributed to the death of his wife, Rose, said: “After two years of hell I now have the opportunity to clear my name.” He had previously claimed to be not guilty to the commissioner.
Stone said via her spokesperson that she had intended to remain in her post until the end of her term in December of 2022.
In his most strongly-worded criticism of the nation’s prime minister to date, Starmer said that by protecting Paterson, and failing to throw out the Tory MP Rob Roberts, who was found to have harassed an aide, he was corrupt.
“I am sick of people skirting around calling this out for what it is: corruption. Paterson was receiving money from a private company to ask questions on its behalf. Roberts was found to have made repeated and unwanted sexual advances toward a young staffer. Both of them should be gone – neither are fit to serve as MPs,” Starmer wrote in the Guardian.
A spokesperson for the prime minister insisted his stance reflected “longstanding concerns” about the lack of having a right to appeal within the current system, though the chair of the parliamentary committee on standards, Chris Bryant, has told MPs that Owen Paterson had been given ample opportunity to make his case.
This comes after two councils in England represented by Tory ministers have received money under the government’s flagship “levelling-up” fund despite being among the least deprived of local authorities nationwide. The health secretary Sajid Javid’s constituency of Bromsgrove got £14.5m in the first announced tranche of cash under the scheme.
Chris Bryant was heard in silence as he told MPs: “It is by definition wrong to change the process at the very last moment.” Warning Mr Paterson that “his name will become a byword for bad behaviour”, he said that the former cabinet minister had “repeatedly, over a sustained period, lobbied officials and ministers on behalf of paying clients … that is expressly forbidden, it is a corrupt practice”.
Andrea Leadsom, who was seen in the House of Commons on Wednesday, has tabled the call for a new MP standards committee.
The controversial amendment, which was tabled by the former cabinet minister Leadsom, has called for the creation of a new committee that would be chaired by the Tory MP John Whittingdale, with five Conservative and four opposition MPs. The intention is to review Owen Paterson’s case and recommend reforms to the parliamentary standards system.