Owen Paterson lobbying: Boris Johnson should 'consider his position' over sleaze row, says Labour - but cabinet minister calls it 'storm in a teacup'

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A cabinet minister has dismissed the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal as a "Westminster storm in a teacup" and admitted a "frustration" that the row has shifted focus from the COP26 climate change summit.

Environment Secretary George Eustice became the latest cabinet minister to admit to a "mistake" in the government's handling of the row over Mr Paterson's £110,000 a year private sector work.

But, speaking to Sky News, Mr Eustice denied that the government was now mired in "sleaze" allegations.

However, Labour frontbencher Thangam Debbonaire branded ministers' efforts to block a House of Commons suspension for Mr Paterson over his breach of lobbying rules as "Tory sleaze plain and simple" and said it had left the government's reputation "in tatters".

She told Sky News that the position of Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, was "untenable" following his actions this week and also called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to "consider his position".

The prime minister has this weekend left Downing Street for his Chequers country retreat as his government continues to face a backlash over its attempts to save Mr Paterson from a 30-day ban from the Commons.

The row has seen the Conservatives branded "corrupt" by opposition politicians, while an Opinium survey for the Observer found the prime minister's personal approval figures had sunk to their lowest ever level with the pollster.

But, asked if the government was now in trouble over "sleaze" claims, Mr Eustice told Trevor Phillips On Sunday: "I know you may put it to me that way, others - opposition leaders and so on, and opposition politicians - will no doubt say that, but I don't agree.

"I've been up here in Glasgow at COP, where some really big decisions are being taken, big, important decisions around the world on a big challenge like climate change.

"What we've seen is a sort of Westminster storm in a teacup, if I may say so."

That assessment was dismissed as "ridiculous" by former Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, who told Sky News the questions around sleaze were "much more serious than that".

"Confidence in our democratic institutions and our constitution are absolutely fundamental and once the rot sets in, [...] that makes it even more dangerous," he told Sky News.

"What we have here is the machinery at threat of being overturned, having said a former cabinet minister was guilty.

"You can't overemphasise the importance of maintaining public confidence.

"If parliamentary democracy is to survive, it survives on people's confidence that they can trust people."

On whether the row might impact the prime minister's hopes of re-election, he added: "The question is whether he can secure a recovery of the economy in time to persuade people they are feeling better off.

"People like me will say the Brexit disaster will make that impossible, but the people who got us into this mess will say it'll be alright on the night."

The row over the government's efforts to block an immediate House of Commons suspension for Mr Paterson - who has now quit as an MP - has dominated discussions at Westminster this week, at the same time as the prime minister is trying get other nations to agree to climate commitments at COP26.

Mr Eustice acknowledged that "anyone in politics" has a "frustration" that "the really big important things that you're doing, that you're making progress on, policy agendas at work, are rarely deemed newsworthy".

"The news agenda will always focus on small, often - as I said - storms in a teacup and Westminster row," he added.

"It was ever thus, that's not new, but it doesn't detract from the importance of what we are managing to agree here in Glasgow."

Ms Debbonaire, Labour's shadow leader of the House of Commons, called on both Mr Rees-Mogg and the PM to consider their position.

"I think the public knows how to judge," she said, as she accused Mr Johnson of a "pattern of behaviour".

"I think the public can see that this week Tory MPs, led by the Tory prime minister, tried to protect someone who'd been found guilty of doing things that an MP should never do, which is take a very large amount of money for a very large amount of access.

"I think their reputation, frankly, is in tatters and I hope that Boris Johnson also considers his position this weekend and takes the steps he needs to repair the reputation that he's damaged, the reputation of politics."

Former Conservative cabinet minister David Mellor, who resigned from government in 1992 over a constant stream of stories about his private life and business and social connections, told Sky News the current government was "a shambles".

"I think it's astonishing the prime minister has allowed himself to get into this muddle over Owen Paterson," he said.

"The prime minister has many great strengths but he doesn't seem to respect the rules and he himself gets into trouble with these rules.

"The fact that he doesn't believe in rules will count against him in the long run."

Mr Mellor also described Mr Johnson's cabinet as "like a children's party, they all want to please 'daddy'". "The reality is a cabinet minister should be above and beyond that," he added.

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