Tory MPs criticise Eustice for dismissing sleaze row as ‘a storm in a teacup’

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(Steve Parsons/PA) (PA Wire)
(Steve Parsons/PA) (PA Wire)

A Cabinet minister has been criticised by Tory MPs after claiming the Owen Paterson sleaze row was a “storm in a teacup”.

George Eustice’s comments were branded “unhelpful” and “complete nonsense” in a sign of the anger on the party benches over the handling of the Paterson case.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed Boris Johnson was trying to undermine Westminster’s standards watchdogs because of his own run-ins with the authorities.

MPs will gather in the Commons on Monday for an emergency debate on the Paterson case and other allegations of Westminster sleaze.

Former Cabinet minister Mr Paterson was facing a 30-day suspension for an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules after an investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone and a subsequent report by the Commons Committee on Standards.

The Government had ordered Conservative MPs not to back Mr Paterson’s immediate suspension last Wednesday but to support the creation of a Tory-led committee to look again at the case and overhaul the standards system.

Ministers backed down following a backlash, prompting Mr Paterson to quit the Commons on Thursday.

This was something that we got badly wrong and they need to fix it

Tory MP Robert Largan

Mr Eustice acknowledged the Government had “made a mistake” but told Sky News: “What we have seen is a Westminster storm in a teacup.”

But High Peak MP Robert Largan, one of the new generation of Tory MPs elected in 2019, criticised Mr Eustice’s attempt to downplay the row, telling Times Radio: “I don’t think it’s very helpful to say, ‘oh, it’s just a storm in a teacup’.

“In my view this was something that we got badly wrong and they need to fix it.”

Another Tory MP elected in 2019 told the PA news agency that Mr Eustice’s comments were “complete nonsense”.

Owen Paterson (House of Commons/PA) (PA Wire)
Owen Paterson (House of Commons/PA) (PA Wire)

The MP said: “They need to get a grip and understand that this isn’t the way the world works any more. It might have been 20 years ago or something like that, but people expect – rightly so – the highest standards.”

Former minister Tobias Ellwood also underlined how serious the row was, telling the BBC: “We should not deny that this was a dark week for British democracy.”

He said Mr Johnson “needs to think about his legacy and what it’s going to be”, adding: “We need to find our moral compass and get back to what the British people want us to do – good policy, good governance, leadership, statecraft.”

But Sir Keir said the Prime Minister is unable to clean up Westminster because he is “up to his neck in this”.

Sir Keir, who returned to the public eye after a period of self-isolation with coronavirus, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Instead of upholding standards, he ordered his MPs to protect his mate and rip up the whole system – that is corrupt, it is contemptible and it’s not a one-off.”

Asked about Mr Johnson’s future, Sir Keir said he is “angry” as the reputation of the country and democracy is being “trashed” by the Prime Minister.

Labour is pushing for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat and his holiday in a Marbella villa owned by the family of environment minister Lord Goldsmith.

The Prime Minister has already been admonished by the commissioner on four occasions, most recently over a £15,000 holiday to the island of Mustique between December 26 2019 and January 5 2020, but this was overturned by the Committee on Standards.

Boris Johnson (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Boris Johnson (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Sir Keir said: “There is a whiff that the Prime Minister would quite like the scrutiny and the standards to be weakened because they are looking too closely at him.”

Environment Secretary Mr Eustice said the luxury Downing Street flat renovations had already been examined by Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, and “put to bed”, suggesting there was no need for Ms Stone to look at it.

“It’s not her role to implement the ministerial code, it’s very much around parliamentary standards and MPs,” he told the Andrew Marr Show.

Labour called for Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg to quit over his role in the standards debacle, while there were also calls on the Tory benches for ministerial resignations.

A Conservative MP representing a “red wall” seat told PA: “Somebody has to carry the can for this. The obvious candidates are the chief (chief whip Mark Spencer) and/or the Leader of the House.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Jacob Rees-Mogg (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Meanwhile opposition parties stepped up attacks on the Government over a Sunday Times report which showed 15 of the last 16 Conservative Party treasurers have been offered a seat in the Lords having each donated more than £3 million to the party.

The Tories denied any link between the donations and the nominations to sit in the Lords, and Mr Eustice claimed their expertise made them “valuable” members of the Upper Chamber.

Mr Eustice said: “They are philanthropists who give huge amounts to charity, who have been very successful in business and, therefore, on those grounds ought to be considered for the Lords.”

Senior SNP MP Pete Wishart said the police should investigate the Sunday Times claims.

“The Metropolitan Police should launch a fresh cash for honours investigation to determine whether a criminal offence has been committed,” he said.

“It is utterly appalling that so many millionaire Tory party donors have been handed life peerages by Boris Johnson and his predecessors.”

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