Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over a culture of “sleaze” and “corruption”, after his ruling Conservative party blocked the 30-day suspension of a former minister found to have broken lobbying rules.
Instead of supporting sanctions against Owen Paterson, the UK prime minister supported a move in the House of Commons by backbench Tory MPs to overhaul the body that enforces standards, offering Paterson a reprieve and leaving the system in chaos.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, accused Johnson of acting in a “Trump-like” manner, while scores of Conservative MPs refused to back the prime minister. Many were absent from the vote and 13 voted against their leader’s position.
There were Labour cries of “Shame” and “What have you done to this place?” as it was announced that a key amendment to overhaul the Commons standards body had passed by 250 votes to 232.
The move threw the UK’s parliament standards process into disarray as senior Labour and Scottish National party officials said they would boycott a new committee charged with reviewing the House of Commons standards system, including setting up an appeals process.
The future of the proposed committee, which will have a majority of Conservative MPs, is now unclear. One despairing Tory MP said: “We are shooting ourselves in the head.”
Starmer, writing in the Guardian, said Johnson needed to stamp out “corruption”, but instead he claimed his name was “synonymous with sleaze, dodgy deals and hypocrisy”.
“This is the man who allows his ministers to breach with impunity the codes that govern public life; who thinks it should be one rule for him and his chums, another for everyone else,” he wrote.
Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary standards commissioner, concluded in a report last month that Paterson had “repeatedly” used his role as an MP to “benefit” two companies — medical diagnostics group Randox and meat processor Lynn’s Country Foods — for which he was a paid consultant.
Johnson instructed Tory MPs to vote in favour of an amendment proposed by Dame Andrea Leadsom, the former leader of the Commons, that sought to block Paterson’s suspension and create the new committee. It suggested the committee be made up of five Tory MPs, including John Whittingdale as chair, three Labour MPs and a Scottish National party MP. The chair would have a casting vote in event of a tie.
The amendment’s passage means Paterson’s suspension has been blocked while the new committee makes its recommendations, although the non-participation of opposition parties has created a vacuum.
Under the existing structure, the parliamentary standards commissioner is overseen by the Committee on Standards, which has 14 members, of which only seven are MPs, including three Tories. The other seven are members of the public with regulatory experience.
Paterson had strongly rejected the charge of wrongdoing, arguing that Stone had not summoned witnesses to testify on his behalf. He has also claimed the investigation had been “a major contributory factor” in the death of his wife, who died by suicide last year.
“After two years of hell, I now have the opportunity to clear my name,” Paterson said in response to the vote. “All I have ever asked is to have the opportunity to make my case through a fair process.”
There was silence in the Commons as Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of parliament’s standards committee, set out the committee’s consideration of Paterson’s case, telling MPs that witness statements had in fact been considered and that they had heard his “appeal”.
He told MPs Paterson had “repeatedly, over a sustained period, lobbied officials and ministers on behalf of his paying clients”, adding: “That is expressly forbidden. It is a corrupt practice.”
The prime minister’s support for an overhaul of the independent standards process has raised questions over his willingness to rewrite the rules to protect his allies.
Last November one of his key advisers resigned after Johnson rejected his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had breached the ministerial code of conduct by bullying civil servants.
Meanwhile a spokesperson for Stone said she would remain in post until the end of her term in December 2022.
According to Stone, Paterson, who served as environment secretary between 2012 and 2014, abused his position by using his parliamentary office to hold meetings with the two companies on 25 occasions between October 2016 and February 2020.