Image Credit: Andrew Parsons
Over the past few days, headlines crying out against Tory “sleaze” and “corruption” have dominated the news. This comes in response to the latest of a long history of MPs misusing their privileged positions in the heart of government to bring about personal financial gain. Could this be a tipping point for moderate Conservative voters, or just another scandal for Johnson’s seemingly unsinkable ship?
Owen Paterson, the now former Conservative MP for North Shropshire, has come under fire since it was revealed by the Guardian in 2019 that he may have broken parliamentary rules in his lobbying work for two companies – work which has earned him over £100,000 a year. Although lobbying is a recognised and permitted part of an MP’s duties, a “damning” two-year report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life has concluded that Paterson’s private interests interfered with his duty as an MP to uphold the public interest on at least 14 occasions.
The committee’s recommendation that Paterson face a 30-day suspension has, however, led to an even greater scandal than this instance of misconduct. On Thursday, after some debate, MPs voted by a bare majority to set aside Paterson’s suspension, and to overhaul the Standards Committee itself, arguing that they did not give Paterson the chance to appeal against his suspension.
This vote, supported by Boris Johnson, nonetheless revealed high levels of uneasiness amongst Conservative MPs, with 13 voting against the party line, and an “unprecedented” 109 abstaining from the vote entirely. Facing this level of unease, No. 10 performed a U-turn on halting Paterson’s suspension, in order to separate his fate from the plan to amend the Standards Committee. This came in response to allegations from Labour MPs, including Keir Starmer, that interfering in Paterson’s suspension in this manner amounted to “corruption”, thus giving the message that the rules are different for allies of Boris Johnson.
Following this government back-tracking, Owen Paterson announced he would be resigning as MP for North Shropshire, a seat he has held since 1997. He blamed the “nightmare” of living under investigation for contributing to the suicide of his wife, Rose, in June of 2020. During his time as an MP, Paterson held two positions in cabinet, (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2010-12, and for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs 2012-14) and was a prominent supporter of Brexit. This resignation will lead to a by-election to choose a new MP for the seat.
This case of misconduct is part of a larger picture of lobbying scandals, stretching back throughout the modern history of Parliament, in which both major parties have featured in headlines over allegations of misuse of political power. Perhaps one of the most far-reaching examples of this is also more linked to Paterson’s case than it might seem: in 1994, the Guardian published evidence of a major lobbying scandal, now known as the cash-for-questions scandal, wherein two Conservative MPs were accused of accepting cash payments in exchange for posing questions on their employer’s behalf to the House of Commons. This scandal (amongst others) was said to have “overshadowed” and “tarnished” the final years of John Major’s Conservative government, culminating in his loss to Labour’s Tony Blair in the 1997 General Election, the same election in which Owen Paterson became an MP.
Besides being a factor in the end of that era of Conservative government, this scandal also forced John Major to create a government sleaze watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life – the same committee which is now being dismantled by the current Conservative government. Some have speculated that this attack on the Standards Committee is in response to the commissioner, Kathryn Stone, considering whether to investigate Boris Johnson over allegedly using Tory donor funds to renovate his flat, as well as further questions into the Covid Contracts scandal.
However, if the aim of this manoeuvre was to deflect scrutiny from Johnson’s affairs, the opposite seems to be unfolding: the Prime Minister is facing renewed pressure for his decision not to declare a free luxury holiday he received as a gift from a Conservative peer and former MP, Zac Goldsmith, in mid-October. Although it may seem awkward enough that this has left Johnson facing questions of a conflict of interests, the Pandora Papers – a multinational operation by journalists to uncover the secret tax havens of the rich – have shown that Goldsmith’s Villa in Marbella, at which the Prime Minister stayed, is owned through a series of offshore companies. As the Guardian reports, this calls into question whether the Prime Minister’s apparent commitment to enforcing greater transparency in offshore property ownership in the UK can be taken seriously, given he has directly benefited from the current lack of transparency. This once again places him in opposition to his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who has pledged to tackle tax avoidance.
In light of this, it is unsurprising that Boris Johnson may have reason to disassemble the Standards Committee, beyond his claim of unfair treatment for Owen Paterson. Although it is too early to know what shadow this affair will cast (the Johnson government is notorious for shrugging off scandal), there are clear parallels with the end of John Major’s government which could suggest that this lobbying scandal may have considerable electoral consequences. Owen Paterson, despite being an ally to Johnson through Brexit and Covid, has nevertheless been unceremoniously discarded now that the pressure is on.