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A sleazy fiasco
Sensemaker audio

A sleazy fiasco

A sleazy fiasco

Boris Johnson tried to save his colleague Owen Paterson from accusations of sleaze. He failed, but by trying he’s damaged himself and the reputation of Parliament.


Transcript
Claudia Williams, narrating:


Hi, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world. 

Today, the resignation of a Member of Parliament and the humbling of the Prime Minister.

***

We used to say “a week is a long time in politics”… not any more. 

Sometimes the drama – compelling drama – happens in less than 24 hours.

And that’s exactly what happened in Westminster on Thursday.

[Short montage of clips about Owen Paterson]

Sky News

It’s the story of an MP, his party, and his leader.

For a moment, it looked like Owen Paterson – under fire for taking advantage of his position as an MP – had confounded his critics, thanks to the support of Boris Johnson and most of his party. 

Less than 24 hours later and Owen Paterson’s “get out of jail free” card was worthless.

“The House voted very clearly yesterday to show that it is worried about the process of handling these complaints and that we would like an appeal system but that change would need to be on a cross-party basis and that is clearly not the case.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg speaking in Parliament

The Prime Minister, roundly criticised by the Tory press and even some of his MPs, brazenly repeated a manoeuvre he has performed before: the U-turn. 

And Owen Paterson…  had no option but to resign.

He wanted a life, he said, “outside the cruel world of politics”.  

So the question is: how did an attempt to help Owen Paterson backfire quite so spectacularly?

And what does this fiasco say about the judgement of Boris Johnson?

***

Before his fall, Owen Paterson was a prominent MP.  He’d held two Cabinet positions, first as Northern Ireland Secretary and then as Environment Secretary.  He was a prominent Brexiteer and seemingly marched step by step with Boris Johnson. 

But then, this happened…

“An investigation by parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone described the MP’s actions as an egregious case of paid advocacy…”

Channel 4 News

The Guardian had got hold of some documents.

“…no previous case of paid advocacy had seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interest.”

Channel 4 News

They showed Owen Paterson had been lobbying for some firms that he was being paid to advise.

And he was paid a lot: £112,000 a year to be precise. 

Now, it’s not unusual for MPs to hold positions outside of parliament. And in Owen Paterson’s case, he was a paid consultant for a clinical diagnostics company called Randox and for the meat distributor, Lynn Country Foods.

MPs are allowed to have jobs like this but they can’t use their influence in Whitehall to benefit a company or business. 

Paterson was accused of doing just that.

Among other things he was alleged to have approached the Food Standards Agency – that’s run by the government – about Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk.

He claimed he was acting as a whistleblower in raising concerns about milk and pork standards and that was why he was “exempt” from the rules on paid advocacy. 

But his actions invited scrutiny, not least because he hosted his clients in parliamentary offices and sent letters using official, House of Commons-headed notepaper.

***

These actions were pounced upon by the Standards Committee, which is responsible for monitoring the actions of MPs.  It ruled that Paterson was guilty of misconduct and recommended he should be banned from his seat in Parliament for 30 sitting days. 

A month away from the House may not sound much but in Westminster it’s a severe sanction.

Cue a daring, ruthless and controversial manoeuvre by the Government.

With the backing of many – but not all – Tory MPs, it voted to shelve the recommendation made by the Committee.

“At the end of the day, some people decided – and this is the very definition of injustice – they decided at the very last minute, for a named individual, they would change the rules.”

Chris Bryant speaking to the Today programme, BBC Radio 4

It was the first time since World War Two that parliament voted against a recommendation from its own disciplinary committee.

“This is not what we do in this country. That is what they do in Russia.”

Chris Bryant speaking to the Today programme, BBC Radio 4

The move provoked indignation.

[Clip: MPs shouting “shame!” in Parliament]

A backlash ensued.  The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, accused Boris Johnson of corruption.  The SNP, Lib Dems and even some Tory MPs weighed in too.    

And then The Good and The Great (in the form of the Committee on Standards in Public Life) joined the fray.  

It described the government’s overhaul of the regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions to be a serious and damaging moment for Parliament and for public standards.  

Which led, less than 24 hours later, to the government’s U-turn followed by Owen Paterson’s resignation. 

So, what does this say about Boris Johnson? 

***

The saga started with Owen Paterson and threw the spotlight on something which has plagued Westmister for years: lobbying.

But of course it does much more than that.  It raises questions about the judgement of the Prime Minister – and not for the first time.  

It has enabled his critics to claim there is a systemic pattern of behaviour at play, from the prorogation of parliament to human rights law to international treaties. 

“In no other profession in our country could someone be found guilty by an independent process and just have their mates vote them back into the job.”

Angela Rayner speaking in Parliament

Until this week, the spotlight had been on Owen Paterson but now, thanks to Thursday’s U-turn, it has switched to Boris Johnson. And for the Prime Minister, that’s not good politics.  

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper and Nimo Omer.