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4 November 2021

Owen Paterson has resigned, but the headache for the Conservatives is far from over

After a messy 24 hours, the worst-case scenario for the Tories has come to pass: all of the political pain of a move widely described as “corrupt”, with none of the gains.

By Ailbhe Rea

Owen Paterson has announced his resignation as an MP after a frantic 24 hours in which the government U-turned on plans that would have reprieved him, at least temporarily, from being suspended for breaking lobbying rules. Earlier today, the government confirmed that a vote would be held next week on whether to suspend Paterson as an MP for 30 days, following an angry backlash at last night’s vote to overhaul the system that polices MPs’ conduct. Paterson has now confirmed he plans to stand down as the Conservative MP for North Shropshire.

It is likely that next week’s vote would have been passed had it gone ahead, suspending the former cabinet minister from the House of Commons for 30 days and leaving him vulnerable to the possibility of a by-election, if 10 per cent of his constituency’s electorate had signed a recall petition. But the threshold for a by-election might not have been met, and even if it had been, Paterson would almost certainly have won re-election in the safe seat he has represented since 1997. He has, instead, opted to leave “the cruel world of politics” and a by-election in North Shropshire will be fought by a new Conservative candidate. 

In his resignation statement, Paterson maintained his innocence, as he has done throughout the process – a particular point of contention for the standards committee, which found that he had committed an “egregious” breach of the ethics rules that govern MPs. 

The Conservative MP also writes of the “indescribable nightmare” he and his family have endured since the death of his wife, Rose, by suicide in 2020. In his resignation statement, he says his children have urged him to leave politics after watching people “publicly mock and deride Rose’s death and belittle our pain” in recent days. Friends of the MP were concerned about a 30-day suspension in the light of his personal circumstances and the lack of an appeals process. Those involved with the standards committee have argued that the committee stage of the investigation did, in effect, serve as an appeals stage to the initial report, and that the severity of the rule breach they found warranted the suspension. They also note that the lobbying at issue took place before the death of Rose Paterson. 

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After a messy 24 hours, it means that the worst political outcome for Owen Paterson – of losing his seat – has come to pass. It is also the worst-case scenario for the Conservatives: they have suffered all of the political pain of making a move widely described as “corrupt” in trying to reform the MP oversight system, with none of the gains. They will likely win the by-election in North Shropshire, but the party has damaged its integrity, and exhausted a huge amount of goodwill: not just among critics and the wider public, but among the many angry Conservative MPs who were whipped to vote to overturn the oversight rules.

[see also: Boris Johnson faces Tory backlash after U-turn in Owen Paterson sleaze row]

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