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It is hard to imagine a more shambolic end to a more tawdry affair. Owen Paterson’s colleagues tore up the rule book to try and save him. Then, the next morning, in the face of extreme outrage, decided it would be better, actually, to stick the rule book back together again, and tear up Paterson instead.
Faced again with suspension, and a high probability of being kicked out of the House of Commons altogether, Paterson did the easy thing – which is different from the decent thing – and resigned as an MP.
His statement is a jaw-dropping mess. He has promised to “remain a public servant, but outside the cruel world of politics”. It hardly bears repeating that he is resigning, in disgrace, having been found to be using his public office to be a servant not to the public, but to himself, having failed to declare that he was employed by various private companies. Two hundred and fifty MPs made fools of themselves, inviting mass public outrage, trying to protect him. There are, one suspects, crueller worlds out there.
It is beyond grim that the suicide of his wife last summer has been embroiled in this matter, though it is a statement of fact that much of the embroiling was done by Paterson himself. It was him, and no one else, who told the standards committee that he had “no doubt” that their investigation into his lobbying affairs had played a major role in it.
He leaves politics having conceded no wrongdoing at all. That he did the right thing. That it was, in effect, coincidence that the potential public health risk of antibiotics in milk to which he drew attention entirely dovetailed with the commercial interests of one of the companies who paid him. Needless to say, the standards committee and the standards commissioner did not accept these explanations.
So overpowering is the stench from all this, it is hard to pick out the individual aromas – but we shall have a go. It is reasonably stunning that Boris Johnson was willing to denigrate his party by making them vote to overturn the sanctions against Paterson in such brazen fashion. It is even more so that the fate Paterson might otherwise have escaped – that of being kicked out of politics entirely – has been made certain by the outrageous attempt to defend him.
By resigning, he has done the Tories a favour they did not deserve, drawing attention away from an extraordinary mix of shamelessness then of uselessness, as they did the unthinkable then thought they should undo it again. Nineteen hours after one of the most egregious acts in recent years – and it’s not like there haven’t been plenty to pick from – they really did send Jacob Rees-Mogg wafting out to the despatch box to announce that, actually, they weren’t going to do it after all.
What is it exactly? What is the correct term for what they’ve done? It’s not really a U-turn is it. If you do a U-turn, you can drive right back to where you started. The longer one searches for the correct metaphor, the longer one realises there is no other way to put it than to state the ineluctable fact that you can put your pants in the wash but you can’t uns**t yourself. Not when the whole school saw it happen and they’re talking about nothing else. Something so outrageous can hardly be undone merely by not doing it. They have very clearly revealed that they certainly were going to, and it is only the backlash that has stopped them.
It’s not merely the tragicomic fact that the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was touring the broadcast studios on Thursday morning, stating, in utterly egregious fashion, that it is now “hard to see a future” for the existing standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, after the Tory party had been whipped into backing the government’s plot to destroy her. And then, an hour and a half later, Boris Johnson evidently decided not to go through with said plot.
There’s also the appalling fact, which was somewhat downplayed in the horrified analysis of yesterday, that Ms Stone is currently investigating Johnson himself, and his alleged attempts to secure donors to pay for the six-figure redecoration of the Downing Street flat. This was a clear attempt not merely to come for her, in hideous fashion, but also to miss. Shamelessness trumped by uselessness.
Then you must add not the casual, but effectively deliberate trashing of so many reputations. So far, only one of the 250 Tory MPs who voted for the amendment has publicly stated that his office was vandalised as a result. That was Peter Bone, a friend and ally of Paterson’s who would have voted for it regardless of any whipping operation, and wasted no time, in the Commons, blaming what happened on the media (the media is imperfect, but people can spot an outrage this gigantic all on their own).
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It is very well known, already, that very large numbers of Tory MPs are furious about what they were made to do, the thing they were made to vote for. That it was reversed after a single night’s sleep makes the problem worse not better. They’ve humiliated themselves for nothing.
And then, yes, one must have some sympathy for Owen Paterson. Not much sympathy, he was hardly a reluctant participant in the plot, not least as, in mesmerically farcical scenes, having sat there on Wednesday afternoon, listening to his mates go on about how unfairly he had been treated, what an affront to “natural justice” it all was, he got up and voted for his own pardon. By backing down, they removed from him the easy option that he should have taken long ago, simply to accept that what he had done was wrong.
And this before we have even got to the highly plausible theory that the entire farrago was a consequence of the prime minister having dinner with the former Telegraph editor and Paterson chum, Charles Moore, acquiescing to a favour for his mate then realising he’d made a mistake.
Dominic Cummings, for what it’s worth, doesn’t see it that way. He sees it not as some act of chumminess, but of real malfeasance, a pre-emptive strike at the standards commissioner. This seems the most plausible theory of them all. We are all used to the chaos, by now; the broken supermarket trolley, as Cummings likes to call Boris Johnson, careering from one side of the aisle to the other, agreeing with whoever he last smashed into. But this is something we’ve not quite seen before. There is broken glass and bolognese sauce everywhere. And now the broken trolley is trying not to U-turn but to reverse straight through it.