Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP, has been suspended from the Commons for 30 days by the parliamentary commissioner for standards after failing to declare that the Sri Lankan government had paid for two holidays for his family in 2013.
Paisley’s solicitor says the member for North Antrim had “apologised unreservedly at the outset for his unintentional failure to register the hospitality he received”.
The suspension, which if approved by MPs will kick in on 4 September, is nonetheless one of the longest issued since records began. While it answers the basic question of whether Paisley broke the House’s code of conduct – a breach he told the Commissioner was inadvertent – the political questions it throws up are of much greater complexity, and ultimately, much greater significance.
The first is the effect of his suspension on parliamentary arithmetic. That Paisley has been suspended for 30 sitting days, not consecutive days, means he will not return to the Commons until mid-November – parliament rises for a three-week party conference recess in September and October – depriving Theresa May of a crucial vote on key Brexit legislation, such as the trade and customs bills, and potentially the final deal.
While the government managed to defeat yesterday’s attempt by Tory remainers to keep Britain in the customs union after Brexit, it only did so by the skin of its teeth. Paisley’s absence will make margins even finer for May, and the job of her whips even harder. The parliamentary stakes have been nudged upwards again. They are almost too high for comfort. We might find the government’s recourse to desperate measures as crunch votes approach – say, ignoring pairing arrangements – becomes a bit more frequent.
The second is its effect on politics in Northern Ireland. Here the potential scenarios are myriad, with aftershocks that could be felt far beyond Ballymena. Paisley’s suspension well exceeds the 10 day threshold required to start the process of forcing a by-election under the 2015 Recall of MPs Act.
Should 10 per cent of his constituents sign a recall petition – a number more than covered by those who voted for the DUP’s rivals in 2017 – then Paisley will lose his seat and face a challenge, in which he would be free to stand.
What would happen then? The answer depends on what the DUP does next. The party has yet to say what sanction, if any, it will issue against Paisley. If it allowed him to stand as its candidate in the by-election that ensued, he would win, and win handsomely: he won the single biggest vote of any candidate in Northern Ireland in 2017, and has a majority of over 20,000.
In the event that he didn’t stand as the DUP’s candidate – and there is nothing at this point to suggest that this will be the case – the contest would be a fascinating and potentially unpredictable one. The sheer size of Paisley’s majority means that North Antrim is probably the only seat in Northern Ireland where two unionist candidates could slug it out with no risk of the seat falling to nationalism.
Who might run for the DUP instead? One answer might be Arlene Foster, its leader. A member of the moribund Stormont Assembly, she is without a power base and a platform. I am told she “absolutely hated” having to give up a shot at Westminster for her home seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. With the prospects of a deal with Sinn Fein looking distant as ever, the gamble would make some sense.
If successful, it would concentrate the DUP’s leadership in Westminster alone and probably amount to a death warrant for Stormont in the medium term (if one is even needed). The full troika at the top of the DUP would be in the Commons – Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson – the net result of which would be greater pressure on the government to satisfy its demands, both on Brexit and direct rule for Northern Ireland.
Sources familiar with the party’s internal politics tell me running Foster in North Antrim would also have the added advantage of solidifying her hold on the leadership: Paisley is incredibly popular with the party grassroots and has a not inconsiderable personal following. Replacing him would have the dual advantages of taking out a potential challenger, and asserting dominance over the DUP’s rump Paisleyite faction. (This logic would also apply if the leadership chose one its proteges, such as the highly-rated Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton.)
Challenging Paisley would not be risk free, however: he would, after all, be on home turf. North Antrim has been represented by only two men in the past 48 years, both of them called Ian Paisley. He would be hard to beat, even as an independent. An attempt by Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, to usurp him in 2010 failed badly. And for now, there is no sign that the DUP want to do it. The likelihood is that it will remain a thought exercise. But what a fascinating one it is.
Returning to Westminster, the third consequence of this episode – and the headlines it has generated – is that MPs will be in no doubt as to the fact that the new standards commissioner has teeth, and is willing to bear them. With discontent growing over just how effective it will be in implementing Andrea Leadsom’s proposed measures to deal with harassment and bullying, it is a statement of intent.
Those cases, of course, are not comparable to the one at hand. But the severity of the sanction suggests that the commissioner’s new broom could yet have a visible impact in the Commons, if and when other cases of alleged wrongdoing come before it.