Last week was acutely embarrassing for the British Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson. After an excoriating report by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, the House of Commons was due to censure former Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson for repeated paid lobbying. Mr Paterson was popular on Conservative benches, and was vociferously maintaining his innocence – so Mr Johnson thought he’d help him out and rewrite the standards system, which he heartily despises, in one fell swoop. Thanks to a three-line whip, and the decisive voting support of a number of MPs who had fallen foul of the system, he narrowly won the vote last Wednesday. This caused such a stink that he promptly reversed course the following day, and now Mr Paterson has resigned as MP. All those Tory MPs who loyally voted for the wrecking motion endured the stink for nothing. I find the whole affair a bit puzzling.
The first curiosity was why Mr Patterson resisted the Standards Committee’s report so vociferously. At the start of the week the BBC interviewed him, and he vehemently maintained his innocence. He claimed that the whole standards process was unfair, saying that 17 witnesses that he had put forward were not heard, and that he had no way of making a proper defence, and not even a right of appeal. He even claimed that the way he was being persecuted over the two years of the investigation led to his wife’s tragic suicide. This was pretty strong stuff, though I had heard this kind of thing before from senior Tories. I will never forget Jonathan Aitken and his claim of “the sword of truth”, before being found guilty. His alternative course would have been contrition, admitting what he had done was wrong, and throwing himself on the mercy of his fellow MPs. Given his popularity, and his personal tragedy, this might well have worked – he could have got away with no suspension or a short one, that would not have had the possibility of triggering a by-election. He may well have believed what he was saying – but, as Matthew Syed points out in The Sunday Times, the human capacity for self-deception is massive, especially when it is in our interests. He would not have got himself in so deep if he had thought what he was doing was dodgy, but he does not appear to have been well-advised.
The next puzzle is why the first initial media response to Mr Paterson’s claims were so muted. On the BBC there was only a formulaic rebuttal, saying that the standards process was independent; none of the specific issues that he raised was responded to; it wasn’t even very clear what he was being accused of; his interviewer certainly didn’t press him. It was not until the debate itself that it emerged just how flimsy Mr Paterson’s defence of was, both in his explanation of his behaviour, and his criticism of a parliamentary process that has been in place for decades. He behaviour was clearly and repeatedly in breach of standards; his 17 witnesses had submitted written statements; the process allowed Mr Paterson to make what amounted to an appeal; and so on. Given the Tory onslaught on the supposed bias of the BBC, I’m not surprised that they wouldn’t take it on, though it says much for the sad state of that institution. But nobody else did either, until that debate. My New Statesmen daily email wittered away about other things. There were no articles in my online Financial Times, nor in the email newsletters from The Times or the Guardian. Where they cowed by the threat of legal action until the parliamentary debate laid things bare? Did they not understand the importance of the story? Where they leaving a trap for the Conservatives to fall into? I’m too far away from the action to have much idea. Once the case against Mr Paterson was properly explained in the debate, though, the papers turned on him.
And then there is the puzzle of why Mr Johnson ordered a three-line whip on the rather bizarre wrecking motion, which basically suspended Mr Paterson’s case until the rules were rewritten by a committee with an inbuilt Conservative majority. This brought the whole thing back onto him and his government. Perhaps the initiailly muted press reaction lulled him into a false sense of security. But if sentiment in his party was strongly for Mr Paterson, and against the standards system, he surely did not need a three-line whip? And if it wasn’t, he was obviously taking a big risk. Mr Johnson certainly wants to dismantle the standards system, which he himself has run foul of, and which may well cause him trouble in future (the rather curious episode of the financing of the refurbishment of his flat is a case in point). Perhaps he was not aware of just how overwhelming the case against Mr Paterson was. It had ben a busy week and he has a distaste for detail. He also seems to have been badly advised by either or both of his Chief Whip and the Leader of the House.
It remains to be seen how much damage the affair will actually do. I suspect that the opposition’s aerated claims of corruption will not cut much ice in themselves, though attacks from fellow Conservatives, such as Sir John Major, might. It is still likely to be another dent in the government’s reputation, which will make support harder to rally in future. Perhaps more serious is that the prime minister will have lost credibility with his MPs; he will find them less willing to go into the lobbies to support any future dodgy business. There is no immediate threat to his leadership, though.
Still, this whole curious business shows that there is a level below which the government is not allowed to sink, much as it might want to. That is something.