Last week saw yet another in a long series of attempted power grabs by this government. Fortunately, on this occasion at least, it was not wholly successful. As Peter Jukes, Editor of Byline Times, put it: “A Banana Republic with no bananas”.
The first of the power grabs
Much has been written about the Paterson affair, and I don’t want to add unnecessarily to that. Suffice to say that 250 Tory MPs trooped through the lobbies to support the Leadsom amendment, in many cases with extreme reluctance, and then found out within 24 hours that what they had been told to vote for was, in the opinion of the government, a mistake. They had sacrificed their honour and the respect of their constituents for nothing, and found themselves on the wrong side of history, if only they would admit it. Many were left extremely hurt and angry, and some even said they would not make the same mistake twice.
The crisis was not foreseeable to those outside government, because most observers thought that even Boris Johnson would never do something so foolish and so Machiavellian as to try to change the rules over the standards procedure for MPs while there was a live case, and indeed at the moment when Parliament was expecting to endorse the sanctions which had been recommended by the standards committee against Owen Paterson. You might well wonder whether the PM himself – who undoubtedly was behind this decision – saw it coming.
Nobody other than Paterson himself seems to dispute that what he did was wrong. Instead some of his friends tried to defend him and called for clemency on the basis of his tragic personal life, something which had already been taken into account in deciding how he should be sanctioned. Clemency might well have been a more plausible response if only he had been willing to admit his offence. Instead he claimed, right up to the point of his resignation, that he would do it again. And when he resigned he talked about “the cruel world of politics” as if he were a victim rather than somebody who had demonstrably abused his position.
To put it in perspective, the sanction proposed was a three month suspension from Parliament (compare that with a six months levied in the case of Keith Vaz), which in turn might or might not lead to him losing his seat as a result of a recall petition. He claimed this was unfair, as he had no right to appeal, and that he did not have an opportunity to present witnesses.
He seemed unaware that for an MP the loss of the seat is a four stage procedure:
- Firstly the judgement of the Standards Commissioner,
- Secondly the verdict of the Committee on Standards, a cross-party committee,
- Thirdly ratification of the House of Commons, and
- Fourthly, where there has been a prolonged suspension, the outcome of a recall petition which is very far from being a given.
Even then the worst that can happen is the loss of the seat. For an MP who has other jobs, this does not mean the loss of livelihood (assuming, of course, that what he says is true and that he had been paid for his expertise rather than to use his influence). Contrast that with what would happen, for example, to the average employee, who might well face summary dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct; or to a GP like myself, who could almost certainly expect that the General Medical Council (GMC) would throw the book at him. Chris Bryant, chair of the Standards Committee, calls for the safeguards to be strengthened rather than weakened.
As to witnesses, he was allowed to present their statements in writing and these were taken into account, although an impartial observer might question their relevance. After all, even if we suppose that he was a likeable character and his behaviour had previously been impeccable, this does not neutralise the catalogue of offences of which he was found guilty.
When it is claimed that this is “par for the course” or indeed that there are equally egregious precedents (such as under Sir John Major in the 1990s), there is at least one important difference. As Sir John major pointed out in his excoriating critique of this government’s behaviour, when the cash for questions scandal erupted under his watch, he lay awake at night worrying about how to put things right, and he set in motion the Nolan process in the hope that this would prevent recurrences.
The second power grab – change the rules
This Prime Minister’s response has been quite different. Firstly he tried to bail out his friend even while admitting that he had done wrong. Secondly he tried to dismantle the procedure under which Paterson had been found guilty, without thinking through what should replace it, and without any discussion with other parties. No surprise that the opposition parties would not play ball, that Tory MPs were inundated with letters of protest, and that even the Daily Mail came out condemning this as sleaze.
And the third power grab – attack the commissioner
What is also revealing is what has been said by ministers. Before the government’s U-turn, Kwasi Kwarteng in effect condemned Kathryn Stone OBE, the Commission for Standards, and invited her to “consider her position”. In effect he was calling for her resignation as if she were the one whose behaviour was in question. Since this remark, she has now been subjected to threats and intimidation. When asked to name one thing which the Prime Minister had done to uphold the values of probity and integrity, the best Kwarteng could say was that “he got Brexit done” i.e. there was at least one manifesto commitment on which he had delivered, as if this were somehow laudable. This shows a total lack of understanding of the words probity and integrity: no doubt something shared by many of his fellow ministers. George Eustace, later, tried to explain that the Commissioner for Standards has no jurisdiction over the Prime Minister as he had not been found to break the ministerial code. He seems to have forgotten that the Prime Minister is also an MP. In such knots tie they themselves.
Tory MPs condemn the power grabs
Perhaps even more striking than the forthright comments of Sir John Major and of the opposition is what has come from Johnson’s own backbenchers. Tobias Ellwood put it like this:
“I think we’ve lost our way and we need to find our moral compass”.
Andrew Bridgen, not a fan of liberal causes, spoke perhaps for many when he said:
“The moment that a prime minister, the leader of our party, is seen as a liability and not an asset, we tend to be fairly ruthless”.
Now that is something that should keep this Prime Minister awake at night.
Those 13 Tory MPs who voted against the Leadsom Amendment have come out smelling of roses. The one who happened to be on the payroll, Angela Richardson, was temporarily relieved of her job as Parliamentary Permanent Secretary (PPS), only for it to be restored when it could not no longer be denied that she had done the right thing.
We can only hope that the increasing number of Tory MPs who have declared that they are fed up with taking the whip against their own principles will find the courage to follow her lead in future. There are plenty of tests coming ahead. The Elections Bill, an equally egregious attempt at a power grab, stands out as an opportunity to exercise some muscle.
We are only one step away from being turned into a banana republic. Let us not take that step.