Senior MPs question PM's judgment over Owen Paterson lobbying shambles

Tories turn on Boris Johnson: Senior MPs question Prime Minister’s judgment over Owen Paterson lobbying shambles… and now the Chief Whip is under pressure to quit over vote

  • The PM dropped a bit to protect lobbying MP Owen Paterson from suspension 
  • The former cabinet minister later resigned from the ‘cruel world of politics’
  • Senior conservatives last night said the whole party has been tainted by sleaze 

Senior Tories were questioning Boris Johnson’s judgment last night after he was forced to abandon efforts to save a former minister who broke lobbying rules.

In a humiliating U-turn, the Prime Minister dropped a bid to prevent Owen Paterson being suspended from Parliament for lobbying on behalf of two firms which paid him more than £500,000.

The former Cabinet minister resigned hours later, saying he wanted to leave behind the ‘cruel world of politics’.

His departure capped a deeply damaging 24 hours in which Mr Johnson first ordered Tory MPs to ram through plans to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules, before abandoning the idea in the face of a public outcry.

Senior Conservatives last night said the episode raised serious questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment – and had left the whole party tainted by sleaze.

Tory Chief Whip Mark Spencer was also under fire, with some Tories saying he should resign over the debacle.

One Cabinet minister said Mr Johnson should have made Mr Paterson ‘turn up and accept his punishment’ rather than put the full might of the Government machine behind him.

Mr Johnson first ordered Tory MPs to ram through plans to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules to save Paterson’s skin, before abandoning the idea in the face of a public outcry. 

Another senior minister said: ‘This was completely avoidable. The problem with Boris is he packs his Cabinet with second-rate people, meaning there is no one to tell him he should take a different course.’ The minister added: ‘It all just looks like we’re back to the 1990s – MPs getting together to support their friends.’

Meanwhile, former chief whip Mark Harper declared: ‘This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as an MP.’

Britain could slide into corruption – ethics chief 

The Prime Minister’s own ethics adviser made a devastating intervention over Downing Street’s handling of the Owen Paterson case yesterday, warning that Britain could ‘slip into being a corrupt country’.

Ex-MI5 chief Lord Evans, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, condemned the Government’s plans to overhaul the standards system for MPs as being ‘deeply at odds’ with democracy.

In a blistering attack, widely seen as critical in the decision to do a U-turn, he said creating a committee to review Mr Paterson’s case would be an ‘extraordinarily inappropriate way to look at standards’.

Lord Evans told an Institute for Government event yesterday: ‘Nobody should be able to make their judgments on their own case.

‘We should not take for granted the fact that this country has relatively low levels of corruption. We could slip into being a corrupt country and that’s why we need to be vigilant around these issues. It’s also quite possible we could slip in terms of international perceptions of us.’


The furious backlash came as:

÷ The PM was said to have been dismayed by an unrepentant interview given by Mr Paterson in the wake of Wednesday night’s controversial vote;

÷ But Mr Johnson fuelled speculation Mr Paterson could be handed a peerage in future by issuing a warm tribute to him, although No 10 said there had been ‘no discussion’ of a seat in the Lords;

÷ The Chief Whip was forced to reinstate Tory MP Angela Richardson as a parliamentary aide to Michael Gove just hours after sacking her for refusing to back the Government in the row;

÷ Conservative Central Office was preparing for a by-election in Mr Paterson’s North Shropshire constituency where he had a majority of almost 23,000;

÷ The grassroots Tory website Conservative Home warned the scandal was in danger of entering ‘Barnard Castle territory’ [the Dominic Cummings lockdown-busting row] in terms of reputational damage to the Government;

÷ Plans to reform Parliament’s standards system were kicked into the long grass, with the Labour Party saying the idea was ‘dead in the water;

÷ Downing Street denied that Mr Johnson wanted to undermine the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who has previously reprimanded him for wrongdoing;

÷ Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was rebuked by the Speaker for suggesting the standards commissioner should resign;

÷ Tory MP Peter Bone said his constituency office had been vandalised after voting to spare Mr Paterson, with the words ‘Tory sleaze’ sprayed on the walls.

The Chief Whip was last night facing the wrath of MPs over heavy-handed threats used to force through measures that were abandoned only hours later.

One Tory said: ‘Obviously there is anger at the PM, but there is a real feeling the Chief should be considering his position. He laid down a three-line whip, threatened people with having their funding removed, sacked someone and had to reinstate her – all for a stupid vote that had to be abandoned the next day.’ But No 10 yesterday insisted the PM retains ‘full confidence’ in Mr Spencer.

Tory Chief Whip Mark Spencer (R) is also under fire, with some Tories saying he should resign over the debacle concerning Owen Paterson

Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said many MPs defending ‘very narrow’ majorities were furious at being ‘dragged into this whole sleaze agenda’.

In the wake of Wednesday night’s vote Mr Paterson had given an unrepentant interview in which he said he ‘wouldn’t hesitate’ to repeat his actions.

But last night, Mr Johnson said he was ‘very sad’ to be losing Mr Paterson, adding: ‘He has had a distinguished career, serving in two cabinet positions, and above all he has been a voice for freedom – for free markets and free trade and free societies – and he was an early and powerful champion of Brexit.’ 

A political fiasco that started over claret and pheasant at the garrick… and ended in humiliation


Tuesday night at the Garrick, the favoured London watering hole since 1831 of the illustrious denizens of the media, legal, theatrical and political world. 

And there, holding court in boisterous fashion was Boris Johnson, totally at ease in the wood-panelled splendour of the private gentlemen’s club, amongst old friends from his days as a journalist.

Boris had arrived back in the capital just hours earlier, having flown in by chartered jet from Glasgow where he has been hosting the world’s statesmen and women at Cop26, while also delivering doomsday predictions about climate change.

Quite how he squared that flight with his final utterances at the UN beanfeast, when he urged the world to stop ‘quilting the earth in an invisible and suffocating blanket of CO2’, is not known. But then Boris had a dinner date and he wasn’t going to miss it.

In the Milne Room, beneath a portrait of AA Milne – the creator of Winnie The Pooh who bequeathed a portion of the rights to his books to the Garrick – Boris joined 30 former leader writers (including three women who are permitted as guests at the club but not as members) from The Daily Telegraph.

This is the newspaper, of course, where Boris made his name as a young reporter who became the scourge of Brussels and EU lunacy, and which later paid him a princely £250,000 a year for a weekly column until he entered the Cabinet.

The group tucked into fish cakes and pheasant followed by chocolate souffle at £85 a head, all washed down with a piquant club Claret.

Owen Paterson, who was suspended from Parliament for lobbying on behalf of two firms which paid him more than £500,000, has resigned from the ‘cruel world of politics’

Having worked the room extensively before dinner, Boris – who resigned his membership of the Garrick a decade ago – was now locked in conversation with his former editor Charles Moore, who was sitting opposite him at the long dining table.

I am told that Owen Paterson’s name was mentioned – and that is no surprise. Moore, recently elevated to the House of Lords, is a friend of 45 years’ standing of Paterson and his late wife Rose (who committed suicide last year), from their time at Cambridge together.

Moore has argued in The Telegraph that Paterson, a fellow Brexiteer, had been unfairly ‘hounded’ by the Parliamentary commissioner Kathryn Stone, who had found he had improperly lobbied on behalf of two firms from whom he had received a combined annual remuneration of more than £100,000. Stone, Moore noted, had absolutely ‘no legal training and it showed’.

Later, Boris, who stayed for almost two hours, made a typically rumbustious speech extolling the virtues of his old newspaper.

The next day he ordered Tory MPs to vote down a 30-day suspension against Paterson that was proposed by the 14-strong, cross-party Commons standards committee, who after their own investigation endorsed Stone’s findings.

The emergence of the Garrick dinner has left many Tory MPs feeling distinctly queasy and deeply suspicious, with one telling me: ‘It feels like this was all stitched up over the port and stilton at the Garrick. It could not be further away from the Red Wall seats in the North we have to hold where this episode will cause us huge damage.’

So exactly how significant was that chat at the Garrick between Boris and his old boss?

It was on Tuesday that the plan to shore up Paterson ahead of the vote, which was partly conceived by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit- supporting Leader of the Commons, began taking shape. It was agreed that the Government would back an amendment by former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom, which would reject the suspension of Paterson.

The amendment would scrap the existing disciplinary system and propose a new committee of MPs – half of whom would come from the Conservative Party with the other half from opposition parties – tasked with rewriting rules for parliamentary standards. 

The same day, the Government’s Chief Whip Mark Spencer telephoned John Whittingdale, another Brexiteer, who had been sacked as culture minister in the reshuffle in September. Whittingdale, a friend of Boris’s wife Carrie, had been upset by his dismissal.

Now Spencer was offering him the position of chairman of the new Commons standards committee to be set up after the Leadsom amendment was carried.

‘It was Boris’s idea to give John the job as he felt bad about booting him out in the reshuffle because he was a good minister,’ a source close to No 10 told me.

Whittingdale was surprised to be offered the job as he’s not been a vocal champion of Paterson and they are not close. In fact, for the last ten days Whittingdale has been isolating after contracting Covid and was not able to vote on the suspension on Wednesday.

Pictured: The Garrick Club – the favoured London watering hole since 1831 of the illustrious denizens of the media, legal, theatrical and political world

But when he agreed to take the position, he assumed that the Tories had sought and secured co-operation from Labour and other opposition MPs. He could not have been more wrong.

Neither Rees-Mogg nor Spencer had nailed down a concrete agreement with opposition parties to serve on the new committee. The plan was doomed from the start as parliamentary committees have to be cross-party.

That failure was yet to emerge, however, when the Tory whips decided on Wednesday morning that they would ramp up the pressure on their MPs by decreeing there would be a three-line Whip, meaning every Tory MP who was in the Commons who didn’t vote in favour of the amendment and against the Paterson suspension would find themselves in trouble.

Waverers were warned they would receive less financial aid at the next general election unless they toed the line. ‘It was really heavy duty,’ said one MP.

Some MPs believe it was Moore’s intervention at the Garrick that persuaded Boris to get tough. But it was also another serious error of judgment. The whips had failed to spot the growing unease on their own side at the perception the Leadsom amendment would be seen as the Government changing the rules to benefit Paterson – even though his suspension had been unanimously agreed by the standards committee which included four Tory MPs (one of whom – Sir Bernard Jenkin – had recused himself due to his close friendship with Paterson).

Even Tory MPs willing to back the vote recognised that the Paterson issue was turning into a public relations disaster. Jenkin told the BBC on Wednesday that the optics ‘look terrible’ but insisted there is ‘no alternative’.

Before the vote in the Commons, Chris Bryant, the Labour chairman of the standards committee, delivered a measured and persuasive speech. ‘He argued his corner well,’ conceded one Cabinet minister. ‘I knew then it was not going to end well.’

But Jacob Rees-Mogg, who responded for the Government, and Dame Andrea Leadsom, who tabled the amendment, were struggling to win over their own side, let alone opposition MPs.

Even Tory MPs willing to back the vote to block the suspension of Paterson recognised that the issue was turning into a public relations disaster. Sir Bernard Jenkin (pictured) told the BBC on Wednesday that the optics ‘look terrible’ but insisted there is ‘no alternative’.

When the result of the vote was announced, and the Government had squeaked home with a majority of 18, Tory MPs sat in stony silence as even usually mild-mannered Labour MPs bellowed ‘shame, shame’.

As my colleague Henry Deedes noted yesterday, the 250 Tory MPs who voted for the amendment looked ashamed. One of those who abstained, Angela Richardson, parliamentary private secretary to Housing Secretary Michael Gove, was sacked by the PM.

After the vote, a triumphant Paterson took to the airwaves and made matters even worse by telling Channel 4 News he had done nothing wrong. ‘I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again tomorrow, absolutely no question,’ he said.

In No 10, they were aghast. The PM and his aides had been assured that Paterson would be conciliatory – not confrontational and unrepentant. It was the final straw for opposition MPs who said they would they would have nothing to do with the new committee.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: ‘The Tories voted to give a green light to corruption. Labour will not be taking any part in this sham process or any corrupt committee.’

Another minister told me: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was agreeing with Angela Rayner for the first time in my life.’ By yesterday’s 8.30am strategy meeting at No 10, it was obvious the game was up.

And when Lord Evans of Weardale, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, rewrote his long-planned speech to the Institute of Government yesterday to say the Tory-led review into the disciplinary process for MPs was ‘deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy’, it all fell apart.

Here was the PM’s own adviser on ethics publicly condemning the move as a ‘very serious and damaging moment for Parliament’.

So it was that Rees-Mogg confirmed at the No 10 meeting that the new committee was dead in the water.

He was one of the key architects of the plan and was dispatched to announce the screeching and humiliating U-turn.

Angela Richardson, who had been sacked as Gove’s aide 14 hours earlier, was reinstated.

Other ministerial aides, who had been warned their careers were over unless they voted for the amendment, were incensed.

As for Owen Paterson, no one even bothered to tell him about the U-turn. He was in a supermarket when he was telephoned by a BBC journalist, who broke it to him that the Government had abandoned him.

Owen Paterson (C) resigned as MP for North Shropshire following backlash over sleaze. It was revealed that Paterson had broken parliamentary standards by lobbying on behalf of companies that had paid him more than half a million pounds

Paterson realised he was trapped. The U-turn meant he was now the new poster boy for Tory sleaze. By 11am yesterday he was consulting friends and family about whether to quit altogether. His departure was the final act in what was a political farce from beginning to end. 

Perhaps if Boris had bothered to inform himself of the findings of the standards committee – which in its 169-page report found Paterson was guilty of an ‘egregious’ breach of the MPs code – the Government would not be in such a mess.

Rees-Mogg is being blamed for the huge strategic error of not anticipating that the opposition parties would boycott the new committee and expose it as a Tory-only sham.

Spencer is also at fault for his bull in a china shop approach to the vote.

But at the centre of it all is Boris, who many MPs believe was so determined to wreak revenge on the Kathryn Stone – after she found that he himself had broken the ministerial code over his free holiday to Mustique last year – that he became blind and deaf to the evidence against Paterson. This controversy is merely the latest in a string of self-inflicted own goals which is leading many to ask exactly who is in charge in No 10?

Whether it was Boris’s refusal to say who initially paid for a lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and failure to make provision for the evacuation of brave interpreters, or the controversy over the Northern Ireland border, the charge sheet is lengthening.

When Tony Blair was PM, he had a strong and long-serving kitchen cabinet. Jonathan Powell, an experienced diplomat, was his chief of staff from 1994 until the day he left Downing Street in 2007.

Likewise Anji Hunter, a friend from his teenage years, was his director of government relations and his influential gatekeeper. Boris Johnson has no such equivalents. He is missing aides of the calibre of Lord (Eddie) Lister, now 72, who was his trusted consigliere from his days as London mayor. Lister quit as chief of staff this year. James Slack, his respected former communications chief, has left to join The Sun. Meanwhile, Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s Chief of Staff, are new into their jobs and struggling to impose order.

So the PM is left with what Tory insiders call FoCs, Friends of Carrie – his influential wife. But they have little loyalty to the PM himself.

One Tory grandee says of recent criticism of Johnson’s governing style: ‘It’s a bit like his marital infidelity – it’s in the price. A lack of attention to detail is expected. But I tell you this latest shambles is one of the worst. If and when Boris’s popularity in the country goes – and it might – a few more episodes like this and he will be out.’

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