The past week has been Parliament Week. Boris Johnson couldn’t possibly blow it up the way he blew up Anti-bullying Week last year, could he? Back then he undermined a massive government anti-bullying campaign for schools by refusing to fire Priti Patel as Home Secretary after she was found to have bullied her staff. What could possibly be worse than that?
Boris Johnson: “Hold that stick of dynamite – “
On 3 November there was to be a vote by MPs as to whether to accept or reject the Standards Select Committee’s recommendation that Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, be suspended from the House of Commons for 30 working days. Their report described his infractions of parliamentary rules on MPs lobbying activities on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods as “egregious” and stated,
“…no previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests”.
Reading through the evidence, it is difficult to conclude otherwise.
Parliamentary votes on these reports are usually free, i.e. the party whip allows MPs to vote with their conscience, and so MPs typically endorse the recommendation of the Standards Select Committee. Yet this time the government imposed a three-line whip — something usually reserved for hugely important issues — and backed the Leadsom Amendment to the motion to suspend Owen Paterson.
The amendment was half-baked and an outrageous watering down of current processes. It aimed to not only set aside Paterson’s suspension, but also to throw the Standards Commissioner on a bonfire and chop up the Standards Committee for firewood. A new committee of MPs was to be set up to decide the future of the Standards Select Committee, which interrogates the work of the Standards Commissioner (currently Kathryn Stone). Carrie Johnson’s former boss John Whittingdale, MP for Maldon (you can read about him here), had already been shoe-horned in as chair of this new committee, and named in the motion, which felt undemocratic and opaque to say the least.
The fishy smell of a government rotting from the head down
What was really peculiar was that it had all been cooked up over 48 hours, without any consultation, discussion or consensus-building with other parties, which is not how reform of parliament’s processes should be carried out. It was all the more astonishing because the Standards Select Committee had been set up by a Tory government in 2013 and contains 4 Tory MPs, 2 Labour MPs, and 1 SNP MP, as well as 7 lay members from the public, to provide balance and independence. There had been no formal complaint as to its workings up to that point, nor moves to review the committee’s processes, despite the Tories being in government for the entire life of the committee. Sir Bernard Jenkin had recused himself from the investigation into Owen Paterson, because they are close personal friends, but aside from him the others had approved the report into Paterson’s lobbying activities unanimously.
Paterson’s defence of “whistle blower” had been rejected, because he had made 14 separate attempts to influence ministers and public bodies, praising Randox’s products, which was felt went far beyond “whistle-blowing”. He had also used parliamentary facilities to hold meetings and parliamentary letter-head for ad hoc communications (the only charge he admitted to, as the committee had copies). His 17 character witnesses had not been invited to give further evidence, because it was all contained in their written statements.
After a day of unseemly culture war tactics, smearing the Standards Commissioner with baseless claims of being biased against Brexiters, lambasting her as the former Speaker John Bercow’s appointee and claiming she’s not up to the job because she’s not a lawyer, plus throwing shade on the Committee’s work, the matter came to the House. Dame Andrea Leadsom, in whose name the amendment was moved, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, made typically sanctimonious speeches, but it was clear they were not winning over all of their colleagues, let alone members of the opposition.
Then Chris Bryant, MP for Rhondda and chair of the Standards Select Committee gave the speech of his life. He was like a bomb disposal expert, quietly dismantling their specious arguments one by one. You could hear the pin of a grenade drop.
The government narrowly won the vote 250 to 232, but they had lost the battle. To achieve a majority of only 18 on a three-line whip, when you have an 80-seat majority, is a humiliation. It’s true that lots of MPs were absent due to illness (several have covid-19 at present), pre-planned select committee visits and COP26, but most of them were paired and that could not account for the near 90 Tory MPs who did not vote or abstained. Then there were thirteen other Tory MPs who openly rebelled and voted with the opposition, including North Dorset MP Simon Hoare (hip-hip-hurrah!).
Next morning, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng drew the short straw to traipse around the TV and radio studios to defend the indefensible, and to keep up the hostile attacks on poor Kathryn Stone. By mid-morning he’d been made to look like an unchivalrous chump by Johnson’s screeching U-turn, and will likely be subject to an investigation himself for attempting to bully the Standards Commissioner.
What on Earth was Johnson thinking?
As Cabinet Minister for the Environment, Paterson had once famously complained “the badgers have moved the goal posts” when asked why government had failed to reach a target. Now here was government moving the goal posts of the way investigations into breaches of standards are conducted, merely to save him. Not a good look. It has cut through to the public like Cummings’ infamous Barnard Castle eye test and the government’s shameful insouciance about water companies discharging raw sewage into our rivers and seas. Why on earth did Boris Johnson torch so much political capital as if he were back in his Bullingdon Boy days, setting fire to £50-pound notes in front of homeless people?
A suspension of ten days or more can trigger a recall petition, and if more than ten per cent of constituents sign it, then there would be a by-election. After the drubbing Johnson received at the Chesham and Amersham by-election, where a 16,000 majority was overturned, it is unlikely he relished the risk of another such result, despite the Tory majority being significantly higher in North Shropshire (23,000). It is poetic justice then that a by-election is precisely what he is going to get.
Some have hinted at another, darker motivation. Boris Johnson is a petty and vindictive individual who bears truly Byzantine grudges. Think of all the time someone or something has gone against him. What has he done? Retaliated. Every time. He would do well to listen to Shakespeare, whose biography he is writing:
Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot
That it do singe yourself
— Henry VIII, Act I Scene 1, lines 140-41
If Johnson were to succeed in pushing out Kathryn Stone to resign, he could take his own sweet time to appoint a more Boris-loving, amenable replacement, and his wrongdoings could be swept under the carpet.
How have MPs justified their moral cowardice?
So much for Boris Johnson, who has a smaller moral compass than an amoeba. What of those 250 Tory MPs who backed the Leadsom Amendment? What could possibly have prompted their “Owen” goal? Some have taken to the airwaves to complain of being whipped to vote to protect a corrupt MP and bring parliament into disrepute. Others have posted written justifications on their websites. Still more have whispered sweet nothings in the ears of their favourite journalists to let them know how bitter they are about having to perform the political equivalent of dancing naked in raw sewage, on condition of anonymity, of course.
Most of the excuses are not as worthy of a “get-out-of-the-glare-of-public-anger-free card” as Tory MPs might have hoped.
“The whip made me do it” – is the top excuse, to which we say: grow a backbone. Did you come to parliament to do what’s right or to be whipped?
“Ah, but the whip said he’d make sure my constituency didn’t get any of the taxpayers’ money the prime minister is making free with,” they reply. That would be the height of folly, as it would put the seat at risk in the next election.
“The whip also said I couldn’t expect to benefit from the party machinery, party funds or help of any kind whatsoever for my re-election.” Now we come to it. Public service is not all about you, you know.
“I hadn’t read the report.” Seriously? Have Tory MPs learnt nothing from then Foreign Secretary’s lamentable appearance at a select committee where he pontificated over Northern Ireland and was then forced to admit he hadn’t actually read the 35-page Good Friday Agreement? Or voting for the Brexit deal without reading it. We pay you lot eighty-two thousand smackeroos a year to read this stuff, plus expenses.
“I was hung over at the time.” Oh, wait — we’ve come back full circle to Boris Johnson, who jetted home from COP26 a day before the vote to have a lads’ night out at the Garrick club with staff of The Telegraph, including his old boss, now Lord Charles Moore, a close friend of Owen Paterson’s…
And that completes the list of sorry excuses for obeying the whip and voting to condone corruption and bring parliament into disrepute. In other words, there was no excuse for this lamentable show of moral cowardice.
WANTED. 250 Tory MPs with backbones. Or better still, a general election. This government has been tested and found sorely wanting. As Keir Starmer says, what they have done is corrupt – there is no other word for it. “What you’ve got with this prime minister is a prime minister who is leading his troops through the sewer and so it is a complete mess of their own making.” It’s one rule for us, and no rules for them. Time for a new set of MPs to lay to rest the rotting corpse of this parliament.
Number 10 refuses to deny rumours that Paterson will be rewarded with a peerage. Yes, a peerage.
Meanwhile, Kathryn Stone has had to be given police protection following death threats. Editor-in-chief