Commons loses moral compass with Paterson decision

Today MPs today set a new low standard for democracy in the UK. Conservative MPs voted to maintain an image of sleaze against promoting an image of integrity. Instead of suspending Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, they suspended Commons Committee on Standards instead. The Conservatives in the House of Commons have lost their moral compass.

Boris Johnson, boosted by his role as host of COP26, is currently a superhero in Invincible mode. Believing that nothing can harm him, he ordered “his MPs” to vote to protect his ally, Owen Paterson, against allegations of lobbying for companies for which he is a well paid consultant. They didn’t all obey.

Despite a handful of Johnson’s troops rebelling, the authority and integrity of the House of Commons took a nose dive today. Most Conservative MPs voted for their own interests and pockets after Boris Johnson decided that protecting Paterson was more important than protecting the integrity of the Commons.

The vote was partisan – almost. The Andrea Leadsom amendment was passed by 251 votes to 232. Nearly 100 Tory MPs abstained and thirteen rebelled against despite instructions from their party leaders to let Paterson off the hook.

Paterson is regarded as an old school MP. Widely regarded for his time in Northern Ireland, he subsequently took up a role as secretary of state for Defra bringing an unhealthy scepticism on climate change to the role. In his constituency, just up the road from me, he has strong local backing among those that tick the box simply because it is blue.

Many people, especially here in Shropshire, have sympathy with him after the suicide of his wife, which he has in part blamed onto the investigation into his lobbying. That should not have distracted MPs from delivering a verdict in line with the rules. Instead, they have scrapped the rules.

Paterson is earning about £100,000 a year as a consultant for the healthcare firm Randox, as well as £12,000 a year from Lynn’s Country Foods. Both companies are based in Northern Ireland. Randox sponsors the Grand National Festival at Aintree Racecourse, which was chaired by Rose Paterson until her death. Paterson said that when he approached government bodies on behalf of the two companies, he says he was raising food safety issues. That Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone,  said:

What might have been permissible in a single exceptional case, became Paterson’s standard practice stretches credulity to suggest that 14 approaches to ministers and public officials were all attempts to avert a serious wrong rather than to favour Randox and Lynn’s, however much Paterson may have persuaded himself he is in the right.

The Commissioner found multiple breaches of the lobbying rules on behalf of Owen’s commercial interests. She referred her report to the Common’s Committee on Standards which confirmed that Paterson had breached the rules many times when he lobbied the government on behalf of the two firms:

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.

The root of the problem is that MPs can take second, third and fourth jobs, ad infinitum. Those of us that vote for MPs don’t do so to promote their career advantage or to boost their bank accounts. We want them to represent us without fear or favour and without bowing to commercial or other interests.

We have today seen the House of Commons vote to allow conflict of interests and to allow MPs to lobby on behalf of their commercial paymaster. We have a government that has lost its ethical way. When the rules don’t suit its interests, and the private interests of members, it changes the rules. That’s sleaze written large.

Lib Dems

Eleven of the twelve Lib Dem MPs voted against setting up the review of standards procedures. Tim Farron did not vote. Alistair Carmichael was the only Lib Dem to speak (Hansard):

I am not without sympathy for the proposition that the rules require reform in this regard, but the Leader of the House knows, as we all do, that when the House requires reform, it can be done effectively only by building consensus. We build the consensus first and then bring it to the Chamber; I am afraid this Chamber is never where we build consensus. Surely it is already apparent to the Leader of the House that even if the House votes today to constitute the proposed Select Committee, the prospects of achieving consensus in that Select Committee are now as remote as they would be of achieving it in the Chamber today. I am afraid the way the Government are going about this is self-defeating.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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18 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 4th Nov '21 - 7:43am

    There have been questions asked all through the covid situation, on who made money out of what.

  • I am very disquieted on the alteration of basic constitutional provisions by simple acts of Parliament by a party representing 40% of voters. What looks like a destruction of a basic oversight committee. Before that we had the abolition of the fixed term parliament act with scarcely a debate.
    I am currently reading Why the Germans do it better by John Kampner. How British and American lawyers wrote the German Grundgesetz to ensure that what Hitler did to walk over constitutional checks would not be possible.
    The Tories are walking on thin ice.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Nov '21 - 9:10am

    How can it be remotely acceptable that someone, who receives as MP’s salary (apart from expenses) from the public purse more than twice the national median annual full-time wage, should also be receiving large amounts of money from vested commercial iinterests?

    How can he possibly serve the interests of his constituents properly?

  • John Marriott 4th Nov '21 - 9:12am

    Of course the whole thing stinks; but who seems to care? It just reinforces what Joe Public thinks of politicians, no matter what party they are from. Snouts to the trough!

    @Alex B
    I would remind you that the post war ‘Grundgesetz’ borrowed heavily on previous German WRITTEN constitutions, especially that of the Weimar Republic. It even banned the Communist Party from fielding candidates in elections.

  • John, I wasn’t advocating using the Grundgestz, but commenting that it has been made difficult to alter statutory provisions. Which is what we need. A vote in parliament without any consultation or discussion is not democratic and more especially could lead to serious abuse.

  • Barry Lofty 4th Nov '21 - 10:14am

    I think Boris Johnson and his entourage believe that as they have managed to get away with so many plainly ” dodgy” and misguided self serving acts since coming to power, there will be no comeback from the British public, so far they have been proved correct, apart from Chesham and Amersham that is!!!!

  • In spite of having a substantial Commons majority this is a weak government. It is weak in the sense that it is manifestly reluctant to take adequate and timely actions and accept accountability for decisions taken. In the end, as Barry Lofty hints, these people have to be dealt with in the only place where they can be seriously hurt, namely the ballot box.
    The Trump experience in the US shows that a written constitution is not necessarily sufficient defence against shameless scoundrels but the UK unwritten constitution is arguably even more vulnerable. Power concentrated in the hands of people who do not really know what to do with it and get confused between governing and electioneering is bound to have ethical consequences. There will be plenty more sleaze to come, underpinned by further resistance to the rule of law. If you have a sufficiently strong sense of entitlement provided by your upbringing and education then bluster and distraction can easily trump morality.

  • John Marriott 4th Nov '21 - 11:14am

    If you have a written constitution it needs to be visited regularly. One of the problems of the US constitution is that it appears often to be preserved in aspic. Gun laws are a good example, where what made sense in the late 1700s clearly does not today. Zealots often hide behind laws that need amending or even abolishing if they are found to be oppressive. Our problem is that nothing is written down and we rely on custom and practice, or should that actually be ‘practise’?

  • Jason Connor 4th Nov '21 - 11:50am

    The commons committee on standards applies to MPs of all parties. What the conservatives are doing smacks of nepotism.

  • George Thomas 4th Nov '21 - 12:01pm

    Waking up this morning to find that “Tory Sleaze” has been written on Peter Bone’s constituency office and it’s a matter that has been reported to the police, with Mr Bone saying he won’t be intimidated.

    i) If there is any justice in the world the police chief will know who did it and will change the rules to ensure they’re protected from any comeback for their actions.

    ii) Are we really living in a system where petty vandalism by someone without any power is going to be treated as worse than political vandalism by a group of people with all the power? Is the tragic, extreme, vile action regarding David Amiss going to be used to try and dismantle any sort of visible response to bad MP’s making bad decisions no matter how gentle or accurate in tone?

    The person writing these words is probably aware that the broken FPTP system plus recent electoral rules changes means Tories will continue to be in power and continue to re-write rules to ensure they can abuse that power without consequence. Hooray for Westminster.

  • @George Thomas: Err, No! In a democracy, that kind of vandalism is almost never justified. It doesn’t suddenly become OK just because you disagree with the politician whom it is targeted against. Seems rather concerning to me that, barely weeks after an MP has actually been murdered (as you yourself acknowledge), someone would be posting on LibDemVoice to defend what amounts to political violence (albeit, against property rather than against an individual). Remember too that this kind of vandalism doesn’t just affect the MP – it also affects his/her constituency staff – who have no say in how the MP votes – and potentially makes them feel unsafe.

  • Jason Connor 4th Nov '21 - 1:46pm

    I would agree with Simon R, there is no justification whatsoever for that kind of intimidating graffiti on an MP’s constituency office. You make a mockery of all of us in our communities who report and remove threatening graffiti. There is that expression two wrongs don’t make a right, the Paterson decision and this smearing of an MP.

  • Historians and serious observers of the current situation might well remember and reflect on the impact – and eventual outcome – of the ‘Back to Basics’ speech by John Major back in October, 1993.

    Similarly, the kneejerk U turn by the Government this morning may well be the seminal moment in the life of this parliament. It may mark the beginning of Boris Johnson’s slippery slide out of 10, Downing Street.

  • Barry Lofty 4th Nov '21 - 2:29pm

    To normal law abiding citizens, yes two wrongs don’t make a right, but when a government so blatantly and consistently breaks those fundamental rules it does not exactly give a good impression in my opinion??

  • Jason Connor 4th Nov '21 - 3:20pm

    Yes and we have said exactly that reference my comment on nepotism but neither does smearing an MP understated above as petty vandalism especially in the light of the recent murder of an MP and other threats made to MPs/Politicians of different parties.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Nov '21 - 4:10pm

    It makes me really angry that an MP can behave so egregiously and somehow expect to remain in Parliament. I sympathise with Mr Patterson and his family on the death of his wife, but for Mr Patterson to claim that this was as the result of the investigation in to his blatant wrongdoing really is rich.
    Now that the man has resigned, no doubt he will get away with his wrongdoing and suffer no penalties at all.
    Let’s hope that this will be a salutary lesson to other MPs who might think of following this disgraceful example, though from what we already know of this government, it seems unlikely.

  • The MP for Shropshire North appears to have been forced to resign by what we might call a “constitutional alliance”.

  • Roger Shelley 4th Nov '21 - 11:16pm

    Interesting that the opposition parties are considering a pact in the North Shropshire seat… in previous times this would have been a potential gain for the Lib Dems (see Brent East by election 2004, similar mountain to climb from 3rd place against a government incumbent). Is it a sign of loss of confidence among both Labour and the Lib Dems (traditionally the party that can ‘reach the parts’ that others can’t in that Heineken-like way)?

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