The so-called sleaze affair is nothing compared to previous scandals
A quick recap of the last 24 hours. Yesterday, the Government blocked the suspension of one of its own MPs after he was found to have broken the rules on lobbying. Ministers then pushed through a vote to unpick the whole parliamentary standards system. The move has been met with uproar on the opposition benches — and with visible horror on the Tory backbenches.
And so, today, the humiliating u-turn. With masterful understatement, the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg observes that any change to the standards process “should not be based on a single case”.
Well maybe he should have thought of that yesterday. And maybe he did, but was overruled. I guess we’ll find out at the next reshuffle — or if he resigns.
Yet having made its fateful decision, the Government should not have u-turned. For a start it only lends weight to the opposition’s hyperbole on this issue. For instance, consider Pete Wishart of the SNP who accused the Government of “attempting to turn back the clock to the worst examples of 1990s Tory sleaze”.
This is nonsense. The Owen Paterson affair is small beer compared to the parliamentary scandals of the past. It involves no allegations of criminality — unlike, say, the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, which sent several MPs to prison.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Paterson’s actions. In fact, I’d support a complete ban on any paid public affairs work by a serving MP. If there’d been one, then this whole mess wouldn’t have happened. However, the rules were fudged — MPs can act as paid consultants in some circumstances but not in others. So what cases like this come down to is whether or not an MP has stayed on the right side of the fudge.
With such judgements, MPs should have a right of appeal — as doctors or lawyers do in equivalent procedures. Boris Johnson made a valid point when he brought this up in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.
But now, with today’s u-turn, he’s effectively handed a veto over the reform process to the opposition parties. They will use this influence to make life as difficult for the Government as they possibly can. Keir Starmer, whose manoeuvrings over Brexit put Theresa May in such an impossible position, must be salivating at the opportunity.
Meanwhile, according to the BBC, it’s thought that “another vote will take place on whether Mr Paterson should be suspended.” So far from helping their mate, the Government has left him worse off than before.
His case won’t be judged on its own merits, but as a symbol of “Tory sleaze”. Suspension could trigger a recall petition — and if at least 10% of Paterson’s constituents sign it, then that would force a by-election.
Reaching this threshold may have been unlikely before, but 24 hours of utter idiocy has made it a near certainty.