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A day after the resignation of Owen Paterson, the Tory MP at the centre of a major sleaze row, Boris Johnson was still under fire for his handling of an affair which has called his Government’s competence and his own authority into question.
Mr Paterson stood down as an MP on Thursday capping a tumultuous and humiliating 24 hours for the Prime Minister.
The fiasco started on Wednesday afternoon when Mr Johnson took the extraordinary step of whipping his party’s MPs to back a contentious vote to not only review Mr Paterson’s 30 day ban for breaking lobbying rules but also overhaul the standards watchdog which found him guilty.
The move – which only narrowly passed by 250 votes to 232 – led to a significant rebellion from Tory MPs and triggered outrage across the House of Commons with opposition parties refusing to cooperate on plans for a new committee which would set up a new appeals process for MPs found guilty of breaking rules.
But shortly before 11am on Thursday the Government ditched the plans, citing a lack of cross party consensus and throwing Mr Paterson’s future and the review of the watchdog back up into the air.
Having seen Mr Johnson’s support ebbing away, Mr Paterson decided to quit later that day.
So what happens now to Owen Paterson?
Mr Paterson’s resignation immediately ends his political career. A statement from the Treasury on Friday morning confirmed he was stepping down as an MP. It said: “The Chancellor of the Exchequer has this day appointed the Rt Hon Owen William Paterson to be Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.”
There is no official process for an MP to stand down from the Commons so this mechanism is used instead to make him ineligible.Until he announced he would be standing down, ministers were drawing up plans to give MPs a free vote – perhaps as early as next week – on whether to confirm Mr Paterson’s suspension, which was recommended last month after he was found guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.
A vote on Mr Paterson will no longer be needed, the Government confirmed on Thursday afternoon, but in his resignation statement he maintained his innocence and spoke of the strains the process had placed on his family. He said he would now seek a life “outside the cruel world of politics” Following last month’s ruling by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, Mr Paterson said the two year investigation had contributed to his wife Rose’s suicide.
What will happen to his seat?
Mr Paterson’s decision to resign will trigger a by-election in his North Shropshire constituency, a safe Tory seat which he won with a 22,000 majority in the 2019 General Election. But while the Conservatives are unlikely to lose, Labour and the Lib Dems are likely to use the election to ram home their claims that Mr Johnson’s Government is mired in sleaze. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s response to Mr Paterson’s resignation hinted at how they might fight the campaign.
“This has been an unbelievable 24 hours even by this government’s chaotic standards,” Sir Keir said. “Only yesterday Boris Johnson was forcing his MPs to rip up the rules on standards in public life is a truly damning indictment of this Prime Minister and the corrupt government he leads.”
Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens are reported to have briefly held talks to put up a non-affiliated anti sleaze candidate but by Friday morning it became clear that each would stand their own candidate in the upcoming election for which no date has yet been set.
That doesn’t mean that the race to replace Mr Paterson won’t be dominated by claims of sleaze with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s response to Mr Paterson’s resignation hinting at the campaign to come.
Will the review of the parliamentary watchdog still go ahead?
Although Mr Paterson has taken his future into his own hands, MPs will still need to unpick the amendment on Wednesday which set in train a review of the parliamentary watchdog.
That could be scheduled for Monday or Tuesday next week – before Parliament rises for a week long recess – and would scrap the previous proposals to establish a new committee chaired by the former Culture Minister John Whittingdale. That committee was set to look at whether a new appeals process for MPs should be introduced.
While some opposition MPs agree the watchdog needs reform, they objected to the composition of the committee which would have handed the Conservatives the casting vote on any proposals to restructure the body.
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said on Thursday that any new proposals would need cross party consensus. So while the original plan will be unwound, it could be weeks until proposals on a new system is put forward.
Does this mean Kathryn Stone is safe in her job?
For now, yes. The Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng raised serious questions over her future early on Thursday when he said she should consider her position.
That led to accusations that the Government was trying to bully Ms Stone out of her job as standards commissioner. The Labour chair of the standards committee Chris Bryant rode to her defence saying: “There is no question – the Commissioner has my full backing and should remain in post.”
And the commissioner’s office made clear in a statement that she would be serving her full term which is not due to finish until December 2022.
That raises the prospect of fresh embarrassment for Mr Johnson that she will now open an investigation into who paid for the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment. If she does it would be the fourth time the watchdog has investigated Mr Johnson.
How much damage has Boris Johnson suffered?
Senior Tories told the Standard on Friday that the Paterson affair had damaged the Prime Minister’s authority. One Conservative said he had hurt his relationship with his backbench MPs, many of whom felt deeply uncomfortable at being forced to back a motion which would temporarily block Mr Paterson’s suspension – a punishment that had been unanimously agreed by MPs from all parties who sit on the Parliamentary Standards Committee.
Pressure could grow on Chief Whip Mark Spencer and Rees-Mogg over their roles in the controversy, although Number 10 said on Friday that they had the Prime Minister’s “full confidence” .
Mr Johnson hopes that by abandoning the plans so quickly he can salvage some of the political capital he spent in linking the review of the watchdog with Mr Paterson’s individual case. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi admitted on Friday it had been a mistake to link the two but rejected the suggestion that the episode represented a return to “Tory sleaze”.
However scrutiny of Mr Johnson’s own conduct is likely to intensify following the Owen Paterson storm. In addition to the questions over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, Labour on Friday called on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to open an investigation into the Prime Minister for failing to declare a free holiday in a Marbella villa which was funded by the family of Tory peer Lord Zac Goldsmith.
Mr Johnson registered the nearly week-long stay in October in the register of ministerial interests, but Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said it had not been listed in the separate register of members’ interests.
In a letter to the commissioner, Kathryn Stone, Ms Rayner said: “This appears to be a breach of the House Code of Conduct and the rules relating to the Conduct of Members regarding the declaration and registration of interests and gifts.”
A spokesman for Mr Johnson insisted he didn’t need to declare it in the register, pointing to an exemption for visits outside the UK not connected to parliamentary or political activities.