Boris Johnson has causally destroyed MPs’ already flimsy reputation for doing the right thing by moving to scrap parliament’s anti-sleaze procedures in the case of former cabinet minister Owen Paterson.
That’s the belief among some Conservatives, who are dismayed after Johnson ordered them to vote to overturn the sanctions imposed on Paterson for breaking lobbying rules. Constituents are already writing to MPs to express their outrage over the vote on Wednesday and the fear now is that public outrage will build, and the integrity of politics will suffer another blow, potentially on the scale of the expenses scandal.
Nigel Mills is one of the rebel Tories who voted against government orders, but even he received abusive emails about Johnson’s move. “What a disgusting bunch of immoral low lives you are,” read one message Mills received on Wednesday.
The outcome is a “terrible mistake,” Mills told the New Statesman. “I just think it is a disastrously foolish thing to do. We have started a fire and we have no idea how to put the fire out or which direction it will burn in.”
Like other MPs, Mills fears politicians will now all be regarded as corrupt because they’ve voted to abolish the system for enforcing honest conduct. “People will be rightly angry,” he said. “People think MPs are dodgy anyway. This is like we are pleading guilty.”
One senior Tory said party discipline is now likely to suffer as a public backlash hits MPs who did as they were told by government whips. The MP, who did not want to be named, attacked the party leadership for backing the move. “We will rue the day,” the Tory said. “This has cut through with the public already and I just think it’s going to be devastating.”
The dispute erupted after parliament’s standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, recommended Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for 30 days, following damaging findings into his conduct. Stone has previously criticised Johnson after investigating how his Christmas 2019 holiday in Mustique was paid for.
On Thursday, the government appeared to indicate that it believed Stone should resign. “It’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process,” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News. “But it’s up to the commissioner to decide her position.”
After Wednesday’s vote, Stone indicated she would continue in her role until her term is due to finish at the end of 2022.
Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, supported the reform of the parliamentary standards procedure to make sure it is fairer, including giving subjects of investigation the right to an appeal. “This isn’t about the individual,” Buckland said. “This is about the process. Mr Paterson has not been exonerated and his case will be dealt with.”
Paterson, who is MP for North Shropshire, was a paid consultant for Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods and communicated with ministers and government officials about the companies, according to Stone’s report. She also found he broke the rules by using his parliamentary office for meetings relating to business interests on 16 occasions. Stone recommended suspending Paterson for 30 days.
But Johnson told MPs that elected politicians should be given a right to appeal and the Commons passed a vote that paused proceedings to suspend Paterson and proposed fresh measures to overhaul the system for enforcing parliamentary standards.