Tory MP Owen Paterson quits amid sleaze storm as he attacks ‘cruel world of politics’

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Tory MPOwen Paterson is to stand down as an MP following a furious backlash over the Government’s attempts to review his suspension for breaking lobbying rules.

Just hours after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ditched plans to overhaul the parliamentary standards watchdog which recommended his suspension, the former Northern Ireland Secretary confirmed on Thursday he would be resigning as MP for North Shropshire.

“I will remain a public servant but outside the cruel world of politics,” Mr Paterson said.

“The last few days have been intolerable for us. Worst of all was seeing people, including MPs, publicly mock and deride Rose’s death and belittle our pain. My children have therefore asked me to leave politics altogether, for my sake as well as theirs.

“I agree with them. I do not want my wife’s memory and reputation to become a political football.

“Above all, I always put my family first.”

The independent parliamentary standards watchdog Kathryn Stone ruled last month that Mr Paterson had committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules by repeatedly contacting ministers and officials on behalf of two companies – medical firm Randox and meat processor Lynn’s Country Food – which paid him £100,000 a year. The Standards Committee recommended the senior Tory MP be suspended for 30 days.

Mr Paterson insists he is not guilty and claims the process was unfair, calling it “an absolute denial of justice”. He called for the right to appeal the decision and claims the two year inquiry contributed to the suicide of his wife Rose.

Mr Johnson had supported an attempt by Mr Paterson’s allies to review the sanction and prevent his immediate suspension by launching a review of the entire disciplinary system.

Ministers had placed Tories under a three-line whip to support the plan. The House voted 250 to 232, majority 18, to approve it, but opposition parties refused to take part in a “corrupt” Tory-led committee tasked with the review.

Following a wave of criticism, Mr Johnson ditched the plans, with Jacob Rees-Mogg announcing the U-turn, saying any reforms would need cross-party support.

The Tory climbdown came shortly after Lord Evans, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, condemned the plans as being “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”.

Mr Rees-Mogg announced ministers would seek “cross-party” changes to the system after acknowledging a “certain amount of controversy”.

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg leaving Downing Street on Thursday (PA)
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg leaving Downing Street on Thursday (PA)

He also said the “link needs to be broken” between reforms and the case of Mr Paterson.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said ministers were “seeking to bring forward a vote in the House as soon as possible” on whether to suspend Mr Paterson.

A by-election could have been triggered if MPs approved the suspension and recall proceedings were launched, but Mr Paterson beat them to the punch by resigning.

His decision to quit will trigger a by-election.

The seat is not a marginal, with Mr Paterson having beaten Labour there in 2019 by nearly 23,000 votes, but the by-election will undoubtedly feature allegations of sleaze.

Sir Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to apologise to the nation in the wake of the saga for "grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend".

The Labour leader said: "This has been an unbelievable 24 hours even by this Government's chaotic standards.

"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.

"Boris Johnson must now apologise to the entire country for this grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend.

"This isn't the first time he's done this but it must be the last.

"And Boris Johnson must explain how he intends to fix the immense harm he has done to confidence in the probity of him and his MPs."

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Wire)

Conservatives had been ordered to vote for the controversial plans on Wednesday, leading to Angela Richardson being sacked as a parliamentary private secretary to Cabinet minister Michael Gove when she chose to abstain.

On Thursday she said she was "pleased to be reappointed" after the U-turn.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted Mr Johnson changed his approach when it became clear cross-party consensus "wasn't going to be possible".

But questions remained over the pace of his retreat because Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems had all vowed to boycott what deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner called the "corrupt committee" on Wednesday.

Mark Harper, who was one of 13 Tories to rebel to vote against the plans, said the affair was "one of the most unedifying episodes" he has seen during his 16 years in Parliament.

"My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this," the former chief whip said.

"This must not happen again."

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was sent out to defend the changes for the Government on Thursday morning.

Labour accused him of trying to "bully" the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone, who carried out the investigation into Mr Paterson, into resignation after suggesting she should consider her position.

Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: "I think it's difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we're reviewing the process, and we're overturning and trying to reform this whole process, but it's up to the commissioner to decide her position."

Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain accused the Tories of "governing like the mafia" by "targeting those who uphold the rules rather than those who break them".

It was not just opposition MPs who were outraged by the move, with dozens of Tories abstaining and 13 rebelling against orders to vote for a new committee led by former minister John Whittingdale, which would re-examine Mr Paterson's case and whether a new standards system is needed.

Lord Evans, a former MI5 chief, told an Institute for Government event: "It cannot be right to propose an overhaul of the entire regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions in a very serious case of paid lobbying by an MP.

"And it cannot be right to propose that the standards system in the House of Commons should be reviewed by a select committee chaired by a member of the ruling party and with a majority of members from that same party.

"This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.".

Following Mr Paterson’s resignation the Prime Minister said he was “very sad” that the MP will leave Parliament after a “distinguished career” during which he was a “powerful champion of Brexit”.

“I am very sad that Parliament will lose the services of Owen Paterson who has been a friend and colleague of mine for decades,” Mr Johnson said.

“He has had a distinguished career, serving in two Cabinet positions, and above all he has been a voice for freedom – for free markets and free trade and free societies – and he was an early and powerful champion of Brexit.

“I know that this must have been a very difficult decision but I can understand why – after the tragic circumstances in which he lost his beloved wife Rose – he has decided to put his family first.”

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