Yesterday, 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. That includes the five Shropshire MPs, including Philip Dunne who voted to change the standards procedures than meter due sanction to Paterson.
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.
Despite a handful of Johnson’s troops rebelling, the authority and integrity of the House of Commons took a nose dive yesterday. 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, 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.
Yesterday we saw 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 out 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.
A version of this article was published on Lib Dem Voice yesterday evening.