Owen Paterson has announced his resignation as a Conservative MP after the Prime Minister was forced into a U-turn to allow a fresh vote on the former minister’s suspension.
Mr Paterson had been found guilty of breaching lobbying rules.
The North Shropshire MP said in his resignation statement that he was “totally innocent” and that he was “unable to clear my name under the current system.”
There was some speculation following Paterson’s resignation that opposition parties may stand aside to allow a single independent ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate to take on the Conservatives in North Shropshire.
In 1997, following serious allegations of corruption against then-Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, former journalist Martin Bell won the election on anti-corruption platform, having campaigned wearing a white suit.
However, Labour has confirmed that it will stand a candidate, meaning other opposition parties are likely to follow suit.
It comes after the Prime Minister was forced to retreat over plans to prevent his immediate suspension by launching a review of the entire disciplinary system.
Mr Johnson had supported an attempt to review the sanction until opposition parties refused to take part in a “corrupt” Tory-led committee tasked with the review.
Mr Paterson, who was facing a fresh vote on a possible six-week ban, decided to resign as an MP, which will trigger a by-election.
Here we take a look at how Mr Paterson and the Government ended up in this situation.
What did Owen Paterson do?
MPs voted on the a standards committee report which found Tory MP Owen Paterson committed “egregious” acts of paid lobbying in breach of parliamentary rules.
Paterson, a veteran Tory MP and former minister, is accused of sending a number of emails to the Food Standards Agency and the Department for International Development on behalf of two companies which paid him more than £100,000 per year between them.
After a lengthy investigation, the commissioner ruled that on several occasions during these contacts he acted in a way which constituted paid advocacy on behalf of these companies, which is outlawed in the MPs code of conduct.
Paterson denies wrongdoing and has criticised the way the investigation was carried out, attributing it as a major factor in the suicide of his wife last year.
He says that the commissioner failed to interview several witnesses he put forward, although they did take written evidence from them.
Chris Bryant MP, Chairman of the Committee on Standards, said: “I urge Members to read the report in full, with a fair and open mind. We reviewed and published all the witness statements in detail and gave Mr Paterson every opportunity to make his case. The facts however speak for themselves.
“This was a unanimous and cross-party report. No standards committee report in our history has been voted down. Voting or watering down the sanction would do serious reputational damage to Parliament and would open politics up to a new scandal of paid lobbying by MPs.”
The Chair also repeated a key element of the report, stating: “Each of Mr Paterson’s several instances of paid advocacy would merit a suspension of several days, but the fact that he has repeatedly failed to perceive his conflict of interest and used his privileged position as a Member of Parliament to secure benefits for two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, is even more concerning.
He added: “He has brought the House into disrepute”
The commissioner and the standards committee recommended that as a result of his breach of the rules, Paterson should be suspended from the house for 30 sitting days, which could also lead to a by-election in his constituency if more than 10% of electors sign a petition to call one.
The government put in place a three-line whip, effectively mandating that Conservative MPs vote in favour of the the motion to create a new committee and ‘decline to consider’ the original report.
The motion passed by 250 votes to 232, with a significant number of abstentions.
There were 13 Conservative MPs who voted against the motion, while 246 voted in favour.
Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all voted against the motion.
As the results were announced in the Commons, MPs from opposition parties could be heard shouting “shame” while one said “look what you’ve done to this place”.
Motions submitted to overturn the decision
Generally, reports put forward by the Committee on Standards pass without any argument, though on this occasion a number of Tory MPs are trying to prevent the report being accepted by passing amendment motions.
More than 50 Conservative MPs put their signature to a motion by Angela Leadsom which would effectively overrule the report and scrap the Committee on Standards, which is made up of MPs and lay-members and voted unanimously to accept the report on Paterson.
The motion “notes the potential defects in the standards system and therefore declines to consider the report”.
It will also establish a new committee of nine MPs with a Conservative majority and led by Tory grandee John Whittingdale, to reconsider the report and change the rules for MPs.
Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory MP who sits on the standards committee but recused himself from the vote due to close personal ties with Paterson, admitted the plan “looks terrible” but insisted there is “no alternative”.
He told BBC Radio 4: “This looks terrible, we’ve had a bad system for years and years and years. I just see this as an opportunity to fix it.
“We’re not letting Owen Paterson off, we’re not exonerating him, we’re not condoning him, we’re going to put his case in front of a proper judicial-style panel where there can be a proper hearing and proper cross-examination of witnesses and natural justice.”
Labour responded furiously to the plans, with Shadow Commons Leader Thangam Debbonaire saying they represent a “return to the worst of the 1990’s Tory sleaze culture.”
She said: “It is shocking that government ministers are being encouraged to vote for a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture. A vote for this amendment would turn the clock back to the era of Neil Hamilton, cash for questions and no independent standards process. Let’s not forget that the cross-party standards committee, including three Tory MPs, endorsed the commissioner’s 30-day sanction for a breach of the rule around paid advocacy
She added: “The Tories want to jettison the system that has served us well and which has been a vital part of rebuilding public trust after the dark days of Tory sleaze this government seems determined to return to.”
The plans were widely criticised by Bryant, who said they would create a “special system for one person, which is completely unfair”.
He said: “The definition of injustice is you change the rules in the midst of the process.”
U-turn on the motion
Despite passing in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson has U-turned in the decision to immediately overhaul the process and block Paterson’s suspension after outrage from opposition parties.
Commons Leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said: “While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or apply retrospectively.
“I fear last night’s debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken.
“Therefore I and others will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases. We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.”
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House, has approved an application for an emergency debate on the disciplinary system to take place on Monday [8 November], while government sources have said that a second vote on Paterson’s suspension is likely at a later date.
What Owen Paterson said in his resignation
“The last two years have been an indescribable nightmare for my family and me,” he said in a statement.
“My integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned.
“I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.
“I, my family and those closest to me know the same. I am unable to clear my name under the current system.”
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