Tory MP Owen Paterson dramatically quits amid sleaze storm

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 (West End Final)
(West End Final)

Did you have a frustrating start to the day? Tell that to Kwasi Kwarteng. The Business Secretary did the media rounds this morning, tasked with defending the Government’s decision to essentially ignore the Parliamentary Standards watchdog over the suspension of Tory MP Owen Paterson.

Kwarteng even went as far as to suggest the independent commissioner should quit. Mere hours later, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared at the despatch box to reveal that the Government was in fact now ditching plans announced and voted on all of a day ago to reform Parliament’s disciplinary system.

(By the way, if you want to watch an absolute classic of the minister-being-contradicted-by-a-government-U-turn-on-live-TV, check out this footage from 2017 of Rory Stewart defending the Government’s National Insurance rise before promptly defending the U-turn several minutes later).

Back to the present day, and this volte-face followed outcry from across the House and media (left and right) over accusations of sleaze. For those blessed not to have been following this story closely, here we go:

The Committee on Standards, a cross-party body comprised of MPs and lay members, had concluded that Paterson, a former Cabinet minister, breached the rule prohibiting paid advocacy, from which he earned more than £100,000 a year from two companies. He faced a six-week suspension and a possible recall election.

Initially, instead of accepting the ruling, the Prime Minister whipped his MPs to support an amendment tabled by Andrea Leadsom to pause the case and refer it to a new committee of parliamentarians, with the supposed aim of reforming the current system. The decision proved to be wildly out of step with the public mood.

This afternoon, Paterson announced that he would be quitting the Commons, triggering a by-election after all. He quits still under the presumption he has done nothing wrong, despite the clear ruling against him by the standards watchdog.

On the one hand, this has a slight feeling of being a storm in a teacup, not least because of how quickly the story has swung back and forth, and frankly, with Covid still raging and the future of the planet being decided at COP26, this all feels a little... small.

But there is an important principle at stake. Not only that MPs should lobby on behalf of constituents rather than paying clients. But that even a Government with a majority of 80 cannot quite so brazenly get away with rewriting the rule book to suit them and their mates.

Elsewhere in the paper, Andy Burnham has an idea. How about no billionaire is allowed to walk through the doors of COP without first signing a commitment to pay tax at the same rate as other smaller businesses struggling with the costs of climate change?

Meanwhile, Katie Rosseinsky says the new John Lewis Christmas advert, with its usual cosy formula, provides comfort in the banal.

And finally, can you eat like a climatarian? As the planet’s leaders look for answers to the ongoing climate crisis at COP26, David Ellis discovers a diet that might just save the world.

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