This week’s appalling parliamentary shenanigans prove the saying about bad apples. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “the rotten apple spoils his companions”. That’s exactly what happened with Owen Paterson.
Nobody doubts that what he did was wrong. He took more than £9,000 a month – more in a year than the average cost of a house in the Rhondda – to lobby on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Foods. Dozens of Tory MPs – including some of his closest friends – told me that my committee’s report was crystal clear and he was caught “bang to rights”.
Yet 250 MPs voted for a motion that would suspend judgment on the matter. Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that the motion changed the rules in the middle of a disciplinary process, which is surely the polar opposite of due process and natural justice – and that it did so for a named individual (ditto).
Let’s focus on the bullying and determination with which the government machine set about trying to give Paterson a “get out of jail free” card. For months, they lobbied anyone they could find. They spread noxious rumours about members of the committee. They tried to get the speaker to block the publication of our report. They endlessly misrepresented the process, claiming that witnesses statements were ignored (they weren’t), that Paterson was denied a fair hearing (he wasn’t), that the commissioner decides the sanction (she doesn’t), and that there was no appeal (there was). They lobbied individual members of the committee – which is itself a breach of the rules of the House, which can lead to a suspension.
Apparently some Conservative WhatsApp groups are full of libellous comments about the commissioner, who has been repeatedly and viciously calumniated in the press. I have worked closely with some of these MPs. A tiny part of me even admires their loyalty to their friend and political ally. But I say this to them: your friendship has blinded you to the truth.
In the eyes of the public, this may have damaged the whole of parliament and not just the Tories who voted for the nonsensical. I tried to warn the house that the government was leading us into a quagmire. Some brave Conservative souls warned the prime minister. But he doubled down and dragooned his MPs through the lobbies, spoiling 250 MPs with the Paterson rottenness and tarnishing parliament.
Even after Paterson resigned, again preposterously claiming his innocence, Downing Street refuses to rule out the idea that he has been or may be offered a peerage. Clearly that would be appalling.
What needs to happen next? The bare minimum is that the Commons rescinds Wednesday’s motion and approve the standards committee’s report on Paterson. That may seem unnecessary. Paterson is no longer an MP, so the House can’t sanction him any longer. When Denis McShane resigned after an adverse committee finding in 2012, that report was never put to the house. But in this case the house has considered the report – and parked it in an ambiguous layby.
The Commons must now declare beyond doubt that Paterson’s conduct was corrupt and unacceptable and abandon the ad hoc committee the government wanted to set up under John Whittingdale. I hope that can happen on Tuesday. The prime minister has to admit that he got it badly wrong and call off the troops, who still seem intent on attacking the commissioner. Jacob “grand old duke of York” Rees-Mogg needs to apologise for the damage he has done to parliament’s reputation. Otherwise what remains of his reputation will never recover.
As for the standards system, my guess is that voters want more independence, not less. We have few enough checks and balances in the British political system as it is. The standards committee has been looking at proposals and will produce a report on possible changes before Christmas. The house can consider them in the new year. But above all everyone needs to respect the rule of law and the independent process.
Chris Bryant is chair of the standards committee and MP for Rhondda