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10 November 2021updated 11 Nov 2021 4:49pm

Owen and Rose Paterson and a tragedy haunting the establishment

At first, a heavy silence surrounded my old friend Rose’s suicide. Now her death has become part of a grim political battle.

By Harry Eyres

A friend messaged me around midday on 24 June 2020 to say that Rose Paterson, a contemporary of ours at Cambridge University and someone I had been close to, had been found dead in woods near her home in Shropshire. The story about Rose, the chairman of Aintree Racecourse and wife of Conservative MP Owen Paterson, had broken in MailOnline, which reported that the police had ruled out “third-party involvement”. At the inquest in September 2020, it was revealed that Rose had died by suicide and left no note.

The tragedy returned to public attention in October 2021 when a report by Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, concluded that Owen Paterson had broken the lobbying code in relation to his work for Randox and for Lynn’s Country Foods. At the time, the news of Rose’s death came as a shock and a mystery. In the days and weeks that followed I contacted a number of people who also knew Rose well, including her younger sister, and everyone seemed baffled. Some couldn’t believe she had taken her own life. One said “she had everything to live for”. Another mentioned her three children and grandchildren and thought it impossible she had killed herself. The Times obituary spoke of a gracious political consort and very well-regarded person in the racing world – devoted to her horses – who in the end had succumbed to “her demons”.

I didn’t entirely buy that line, or that version of Rose, and from the beginning I suspected there was a political dimension to her suicide. The initial report in the MailOnline by Martin Robinson stated that “Rose Paterson’s death came as she became embroiled in a planning row alongside housing secretary Robert Jenrick, who has asked his department to re-examine an application by the Jockey Club for 300-plus homes and a hotel at Sandown Park, after it had been unanimously rejected by Surrey councillors last year”. Rose was a steward on the board of the Jockey Club. Nothing much has emerged about this since, and certainly nothing to implicate Rose. Jenrick’s already tarnished reputation has since corroded further and he has left the government. The MailOnline report also highlighted that 24 June was Owen Paterson’s birthday. I held the view that this timing was not a coincidence.

Absent friend: Rose and Owen Paterson in 2011. Rose took her own life in June 2020. Photo by Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Politics was not the only reason I wanted to shed some light, if that were possible, on a dark and dreadful – and for her family intolerably upsetting – end to a life that seemed from the outside to be admirable, enviable and successful. I was preoccupied by Rose’s death because she was a friend. I also felt shutters and ranks were closing around her suicide, as they do in such circumstances, but particularly in establishment circles; the virtual silence from friends seemed almost unnatural, like a code of omertà. The silence also felt like a way of erasing Rose’s true story.

One friend of mine – and a good friend of the Patersons – told me Rose had been quite depressed, perhaps partly as a result of having had Covid badly and due to the cancellation of the 2020 Grand National. When I asked about the political dimension, the friend said that the investigation into Owen, under way since 2019, had been weighing heavily on her.

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Rather obsessively, I rehearsed in my mind a scene Rose and I had played out at the Trinity College May Ball in 1977, sheltering from squally rain under the arches of Nevile’s Court. Rose had said she felt torn between me (we had suddenly and wonderfully become extremely close) and Owen (the heir to his family’s leather business), who had asked her to marry him. I fluffed my lines, muttered something about very much wanting to get to know her better, to have an affair, but not being ready for any kind of commitment. I could see a vulnerable puzzlement on her face harden into something more resolved.

[see also: Keir Starmer has accused the Conservatives of “corruption”. Will it matter?]

In the same conversation, she told me she had been offered a place on the Thomson journalism training programme – at the time Thomson owned the Times and the traineeship was as sought-after as the BBC scheme – and had decided she wouldn’t even respond to the offer. I made little comment at the time but I thought about what she’d said afterwards.

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The timing was all wrong for us. Rose, the daughter of the fourth Viscount Ridley (also niece of the Tory politician Nicholas Ridley, and sister of my school contemporary Matt Ridley, who would become a well-known science writer and chairperson of Northern Rock), was far more sophisticated and experienced than me, and was already contemplating vistas far beyond “student romance”. New avenues were opening up for her as she decided to close off others. As for me, I was unformed and sure of nothing but that I wanted to be a writer. And to do that I needed many experiences, among which getting married at 19 was not high on the list.

My next memory of seeing Rose was some months later when I joined a group of Cambridge friends, including Rose but not Owen, in a holiday house in northern Tuscany. Rose had changed almost beyond recognition: she had dramatically lost weight, had a new haircut, seemed like a different woman. I remember walking with her through the high chestnut woods looking towards the Apuan Alps and feeling painfully alienated and disconnected. Perhaps I missed the old Rose, the one who was thinking of a journalistic career (in fact, Rose later spent ten years as an art critic for the Telegraph), whose mischievous, slightly subversive smile lit up my days.

But the warmth between us returned – maybe it had never fully gone away – and we entered a new phase of friendship. My initial relationship had been with Rose Ridley. Now I was friends with “Rose and Owen”. For their last year at university, they had moved to a very grown-up house in Cambridge and were living like a married couple (they married two years later). Owen was a bit bluff and blunt for my taste, sometimes verging on obtuse – like a hard northern industrialist in a 19th-century novel – but I could see he had dash, was undaunted, and I respected him for taking on very adult responsibilities in British Leather Company. I always felt he was better suited to industry than politics – maybe in part because his politics were diametrically opposed to mine: he would become a climate change sceptic and ardent Brexiteer.

I was invited to stay with them – at his family home, at Rose’s family home, Blagdon, in Northumberland, and at the house on a hill in Shropshire that became their family home – because I was Rose’s friend, but I got on with Owen too. I felt sheltered by Rose, in a way I never articulated: there was some kind of understanding between us, a complicity of shared laughter.

Rose and I gradually drifted apart and hardly saw anything of each other for decades, while Owen became the Conservative MP for North Shropshire and a minister. For many years Rose ran Owen’s office, having given up her job as a valuer at Sotheby’s, and I pursued the path of a freelance journalist, poet and author. But in the past five years I had bumped into Rose a few times, found the old warmth and shared laughter were still there, made vague plans that my wife and I would come to stay. Perhaps this was why I found her suicide so shocking; she hadn’t seemed at all like a person contemplating ending her life.

Here is a moment to pause and ponder the meaning of suicide. I know something about its impact, which crosses generations. My grand- father’s suicide, initially hushed up, was revealed to my mother only 15 years after it happened, when she was pregnant with her first child. It was something she never came to terms with and which continues to reverberate. For those left behind, a suicide represents something like dark matter, impossibly dense and opaque, energy-sapping. As Evie Paterson, Rose and Owen’s daughter, put it in an articulate and moving interview with ITV’s Mike Hall in April 2021: “I don’t think suicide bereavement is something you ever get over… the grief… is particularly complex, because we will never definitively know why she did it, and we will always have that lingering feeling of, should we have done more?”

Evie went on to say that suicide is essentially irrational. You could argue that no one who takes their own life is entirely in their right mind (though this is debatable, and Dignitas would disagree). But I would say suicide is, on the whole, a deliberate action by someone who at that moment sees no other or better way out. It tends to be deeply connected to other actions taken or experiences undergone by the person.

Evie was speaking with great composure and dignity at a time when it seemed those closest to Rose were still baffled by the motives behind her suicide. Now we have entered a new phase of the story. Rose’s suicide has suddenly become part of the hottest political topic of the day. From saying he had no inkling why his wife killed herself, Owen has moved to citing the investigation into his alleged misconduct as an MP in relation to paid advocacy as one of the main reasons for her death.

The report by the Committee on Standards concluded that Owen Paterson had committed “egregious” breaches of the lobbying code and recommended that he “be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days”. He was waiting for the Commons vote on a motion to carry out the recommendations. But, rather astonishingly, an amendment tabled by the Conservative backbencher Andrea Leadsom to overturn the verdict and set up a new standards committee was passed in the Commons on 3 November.

Incidentally, days before the first vote, Charles Moore, an old friend of mine who had been on that Tuscan holiday long ago, and a close friend of the Patersons, wrote an incendiary piece in the Telegraph defending Owen and criticising the work of Kathryn Stone and the committee. On 2 November Boris Johnson flew back from Cop26 in Glasgow on a private plane to attend a reunion dinner at the Garrick Club in central London with Moore and a group of Telegraph journalists.

The day after the vote, on 4 November, the government performed one of the fastest U-turns in parliamentary history, abandoning its plan to overhaul the standards system and offering a new vote on suspending Owen. Hours later, Owen resigned his Commons seat.

Events are moving at a dizzying pace but there is a sense that Owen’s defence is crumbling, amid a general stench of cronyism and corruption. What I found most upsetting was not so much Owen’s breach of lobbying rules, reprehensible though it appears, but the way that Rose’s suicide has become part of a political battle. He told the BBC: “There’s absolutely no doubt whatever in my mind that the manner in which this inquiry was conducted led to the extreme anguish which caused Rose to kill herself.” He added that Rose had said shortly before she died: “She [Kathryn Stone] is determined to catch you out. And then you’ll have to resign, and I’ll have to resign, and we’ll end our days in humiliation and disgrace.”

As her daughter rightly commented, we don’t know exactly what was passing through Rose’s mind in the hours, days, weeks before she took her life. We do know from the inquest that she made various online searches on ways to take her life in the month before she died. If she was depressed, one definition of depression is anger turned inwards.

My impression – a highly subjective one – was that Rose had internalised many things over the course of her married life that would have been better questioned or even rejected. One was what one might call the code of the Tory political wife: unquestioningly loyal, all too often a victim.

No one has accused Rose or found her guilty of impropriety. She was extremely well thought of at Aintree, where she worked tirelessly for the welfare of horses.

That Aintree Grand National received, from 2017, sponsorship from Randox – the diagnostics and testing company that paid her husband £100,000 a year for consultancy – was not in itself improper. But perhaps Rose began to worry that if her husband was found in breach of lobbying rules in relation to Randox, that might reflect negatively on her or on the sponsorship deal that supported something she clearly loved. Randox was awarded a government Covid testing contract worth £133m without competition in March 2020, followed by another one worth £346.5m in November 2020. The company said it won the government contracts “on merit”, but you might think the consultancy fees it paid Owen were an excellent investment.

Whether she believed her husband’s protestations of innocence – continuing as he seeks a life outside what he called the “cruel” world of politics – we cannot know. Nor can we say for sure whether the date of her death was chosen deliberately. Though Rose Paterson’s fate has become part of this story, her voice is absent. She didn’t leave a note.

For details of the Rose Paterson Trust, which fundraises for suicide prevention projects, visit rosepatersontrust.com

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks