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Boris Johnson has ditched plans announced on Wednesday to reform Parliament’s disciplinary system after a furious backlash in the Owen Paterson sleaze storm.
In a dramatic U-turn, the Prime Minister also backed the principle that any reforms could not apply retrospectively to individual cases. The move means former Cabinet minister Mr Paterson faced suspension from the Commons for 30 days.
He was found by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of two companies — medical firm Randox and meat processor Lynn’s Country Foods — which paid him more than £100,000 a year.
Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg announced the U-turn in the Commons on Thursday morning after only 250 MPs backed the Government’s proposals to set up a new committee, chaired by a Tory MP, to draw up plans for a new appeals system. Opposition MPs vowed to boycott the committee and following a wave of criticism, Mr Rees-Mogg announced the U-turn, saying any reforms would need cross-party support.
“The House voted very clearly yesterday to show that it is worried about the process of handling these complaints and we would like an appeals system,” Mr Rees-Mogg told MPs at Business Questions. “While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or applied retrospectively.”
He also admitted: “I fear last night’s debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken. Therefore I and others will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases.
“We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said the Government changed its approach on Thursday morning after it became clear Wednesday’s proposed review of the standards watchdog did not have cross party support.
MPs were to be given a vote “as soon as possible” on whether to confirm Mr Paterson’s 30 day suspension, although that will no longer take place. Tory MPs would not have been whipped to vote against the former minister’s punishment as they were on Wednesday.
At the same time that vote would have sought to unpick Wednesday’s separate move to set up a new committee to review the standards watchdog and introduce an appeals process.
We should never be changing the rules at the last minute for a named individual
Details on any future review of the way the body operates will now be the subject of cross party talks.
The PM’s spokesman said Mr Johnson “recognised the strong feeling in the House on both sides of the debate”.
He added: “The amendment itself required cross party consensus, once it became clear that was not going to be achieved, it was necessary to look again at this and separate out this individual case with the wider necessity to introduce an appeals process.
“We will seek cross party consensus going forward.”
On the question of Ms Stone’s position, he said: “It’s entirely a matter for her…the Prime Minister’s focus is on securing a proper appeal for this process as there are in other walks of life.”
Chris Bryant, chairman of the Commons Standards Committee, said the Government’s actions had created a “quagmire”. He added: “We should never be changing the rules at the last minute for a named individual.”
The U-turn was a humiliation for Mr Rees-Mogg, who only a day earlier had defended the reforms. Some Tory MPs had voted for the changes despite privately disagreeing with them being linked to Mr Paterson’s case.
Thirteen Conservative MPs had rebelled, with dozens more abstaining.
Mr Rees-Mogg said he was now minded to follow the process which led to the setting up of Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) as the Government reviews MPs’ standards.
Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said she was “frankly astonished” at the U-turn. Just hours earlier, Mr Johnson faced a bullying storm after a Cabinet minister suggested the independent watchdog on Parliamentary standards should consider her position over the Paterson sleaze storm.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that while it was up to Ms Stone, the commissioner on Parliamentary Standards, to decide whether she remains in post, it was “difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is”.
The watchdog is under intense pressure following Wednesday’s controversial vote by MPs to review her ruling against Mr Paterson, who was accused last month of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules. The move — which was only narrowly passed by 250 votes to 238 — triggered a furious response from MPs from all parties who were angry at the Prime Minister’s decision to whip Conservative members to back the proposal.
As well as overturning Mr Paterson’s suspension the amendment also paved the way for a major overhaul of the body which enforces standards for MPs.
Speaking before the U-turn, MP Sir Peter Bottomley, said that the watchdog should not be forced to quit.
“Parliament will hope and expect the standards commissioner remains in place,” the Tory grandee said.
In a statement, the Commissioner’s office said: “The Commissioner’s term is due to finish in December 2022, and the Commissioner will be serving her full term. Other than that the Commissioner has no further comment”.
Tory MP Nigel Mills, one of the 13 who voted against the Government, said: “It’s outrageous for a Government minister to suggest that an employee of Parliament should consider her position as all she has done is do the role Parliament has given her without fear or favour.”
Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, added: “There is quite a feeling the system needs reconsideration and probably reform but this wasn’t the way to do it and I suspect the Prime Minister was recognising that desire for reform but hadn’t recognised the consequences of doing it in this manner.”