Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Hard to remember a grimmer two hours for Johnson

31 Jan

Hard to remember a more sombre afternoon in the House of Commons. Before Boris Johnson rose to speak, Dominic Raab looked so pale and anxious one wondered if he had slept at all.

Priti Patel was grave and tense, and even Jacob Rees-Mogg had lost his natural ebullience.

Were they here for Johnson’s funeral? No, but at the start of many of the Prime Minister’s replies there was an unaccustomed croak in his voice.

“Firstly I want to say sorry,” he began. He was “sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right…we must look ourselves in the mirror and we must learn.”

No levity, no ridiculing of his critics, could be allowed to cast doubt on the sincerity of this repentance. Here was the Prime Minister in self-sacrificial mode, seeking to show he felt the agony of all those who, because they obeyed the rules, had to leave some family member to die alone.

“I get it and I will fix it,” Johnson declared to Opposition jeers.

Sir Keir Starmer made, as usual, a lucid case, but as usual could bring no extra weight of emotion to bear, and sounded faintly pious.

Theresa May said in her most Anglican tone that the task of the Prime Minister is to “set an example”, and indicated that one way or another, Johnson had failed to do so.

Either he had not read the rules, or he had not understood them, or he thought they did not apply to Number Ten: “Which was it?”

Johnson replied, in as unindignant tone as he could manage, that this was not what Sue Gray’s report had said.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, accused Johnson of misleading the House, was given every opportunity by the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to withdraw the charge, declined to do so, and had therefore to leave.

It was so evident that Blackford was acting for party advantage that he slightly eased the pressure on Johnson.

Andrew Mitchell (Con, Sutton Coldfield), who was wearing a black tie, increased the pressure again. He remarked that for 30 years he had given “full-throated support” to Johnson, and went on: “I have to tell him he no longer enjoys my support”.

This was perhaps the unkindest cut of all. When Johnson set out in the 1990s to run for the European Parliament, it was Mitchell who in the face of intense pressure kept him on the candidates’ list.

There was a sort of haplessness about Johnson. He could not play his natural game, but had to stand, as it were, in the stocks, and allow himself to be pelted.

Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) described how he had himself obeyed the Covid rules as they pertained to his grandmother’s funeral: “Does the Prime Minister think that I’m a fool?”

What a slap in the face. A considerable number of Conservatives sought to praise Johnson, but none could change the atmosphere of a very grim two hours.

Johnson’s plan for dealing with the Paterson case has failed. His choice now is: back down – or risk real damage.

3 Nov

At the heart of the low politics of the Paterson controversy – to leave the issues of high principle aside for a moment – is the prospect of a recall petition and a by-election in his North Shropshire seat.

My take on the row earlier this week was that the Standards Committee’s verdict was contestable, that its proposed sentence was unfair, and that the punishment of a potential petition and election was disproportionate.

It followed that the Commons should address the core issue: namely, a recall procedure that is at once too lax, because constituents’ right to trigger it is too constricted, and too tight, because the threshold for doing so is too low.

“If, say, a quarter or a third of Paterson’s constituents want to recall him, they should have the right to trigger a ballot, regardless of what a Parliamentary committee may rule. And the same should apply to every other MP,” I wrote.

Had the Government proposed a package to the chamber whereby the right to recall be extended at the same as its standards system be reformed, it might just have pulled off a successful political manoeuvre.

Probably not – since MPs would be unlikely to back a more permissive recall trigger, even if balanced by a higher threshold.  But the Government would at least have had more political cover than it has this evening.

The sum of yesterday’s Commons debate and vote, whereby it moved to shield a Tory MP accused of corruption without offering voters any new safeguards against it, is that the Conservative Party is now pinned down by hostile fire in a cul-de-sac of its own creation.

What was meant to be an escape route – the creation of a new Select Committee that would consider Paterson’s individual case while also reviewing the whole standards system – risks becoming a Tory killing ground with no exit.

For Keir Starmer, the opportunity to revive the charge of “Tory sleaze” and get on the front foot is too glittering an opportunity to resist.  The other Opposition parties will gleefully pile in.

Had the Government proposed an amendment to today’s motion to suspend Paterson from the Commons for, say, five days, MPs would doubtless have voted for it, there would have been no risk of a by-election…and the public would scarcely have noticed.

Fat chance of that now.  To date, Paterson has had a reasonable press, mostly because of the terrible suicide of his wife, Rose.  I’m sorry to say that this will now change.

For by postponing a decision on his case, the whipped ranks of the Conservative Parliamentary Party have left Paterson exposed.  His agony will be dragged out for even longer.  He hangs exposed as a poster boy for “Tory sleaze”, however unfairly.

The new Conservative-only committee thus faces a Catch-22.  If it proposes a suspension for Paterson that might trigger a by-election, what on earth was the point of today’s political manoeuvres?

If it doesn’t, I’m afraid that a five-day sentence, say, will no longer cut the mustard.  The charge today in the Commons was that the Government was shielding corruption.

Andrea Leadsom struggled for an answer, in moving her Government-backed amendment, to the question: why now?  If the standards system needs reform, why not first complete the business on Paterson before turning to a wider review?

Aaron Bell cut to the chase: “it looks like we are moving the goalposts.”  One thing is certain: if Labour won’t co-operate with the Government over an individual case – Paterson’s – there’s not a cat in hell’s chance that it will do so over reforming the entire system.

That might not matter had the Government won today’s vote with its majority of roughly 80 or thereabouts.  But it only made it over the line by the slender majority of 18.

Never mind for the moment whether Tory critics of Paterson, such as Peter Bottomley, were right or wrong in the view that they expressed today.  The fact is that a party under fire must hang together if it is to survive assault.

Thirteen rebels and a mass of absentions is a revolt in the ranks.  More will join them as e-mails and tweets from constituents begin to come in. Angela Richardson didn’t back the Government and has lost her PPS post.

Had the Government’s majority been bigger, Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who investigated Paterson, would most likely have quit.  The position of the Standards Committee and its Chairman, Chris Bryant, would have been impossible.

As it is, Bryant will now hang on in there.  Yesterday was his first substantial opportunity to reply to the charges of the committee’s critics.  The silence in which he was heard was evidence that he took it.

It may just be, as I write in today’s Times, that Labour’s attack on “Tory sleaze” fails to cut through.  After all, it has to date – for all its assaults on Covid contracts and the treatment of Rob Roberts and David Cameron over Greensill.

But the risk for the Government is that the Paterson row drags on, with the new committee unable to operate, any proposals from it doomed before they emerge, and Labour exploiting every Commons device it can find to keep punching the Paterson bruise.

He continues to make his own case – namely, that his paid advocacy was justified under the rules by whistle-blowing, that neither he nor his clients have gained, and that the safety of consumers in Northern Ireland has been enhanced: and as I’ve written before, it has merit.

Nonetheless, he may now find himself to be like a man shouting against the wind – in this case, a public one of ridicule, ignorance, hatred and contempt.  We may be in Barnard Castle territory.

No politican ever had a cannier sense of his own self-preservation than Boris Johnson.  The “greased albino piglet” has wriggled out of many a tight spot.  It is puzzling that he has got himself into this one – or might be, had he not had his own run-ins with the Commissioner.

There is now no good option for the Prime Minister.  The choice is between backing any reform plan advanced by the new Tory-only committee in a Commons vote, or not doing so for fear of that slender majority of 18 vanishing altogether.

Which do you really think is more likely?  It may now be that the new committee first finds a means of proposing a suspension for Paterson of less than ten sitting days – a verdict, incidentally, that he and his supporters will resist…

…Before putting its collective hand up, and conceding that there is “not sufficient support in the House for the necessary reforms at this time”.  And Bryant’s committee then proposes a few small changes itself: a touch here, a tweak there.

The Commons chamber is like a sea.  It has its own times and tides.  Sometimes, the skies can seem clear.  And suddenly a storm can appear out of nothing.

For what it’s worth, my judgement is that the weather shifted against the Government in the chamber today.  It may not or may not have deserved to lose the argument.  But it did so: hence the wounding inadequacy of its majority when the vote came.

The most likely course of events is that Johnson now tries to change the subject.  Then sniffs the breeze over the next day or so.  If the row drags on for a few days, let alone gets noisier, he will fall back from that dead end.  And all the while, Paterson will fight on.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: “Sometimes to do the right thing one has to accept a degree of opprobrium”

3 Nov

“Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, said at the start of his speech.

He proceeded to contend that “the basic principles of natural justice” were broken when a defendant was given no proper right of appeal.

He was not there to defend Owen Paterson, who sat stony-faced on the Conservative benches, but to uphold the proposal in Andrea Leadsom’s amendment for a new committee which would look into how, in cases such as Paterson’s where an MP has been censured, the right of appeal can be upheld.

Rees-Mogg ended by saying that “the system must provide justice tempered by mercy”, and pointed out that Paterson has already suffered terribly: “the suicide of his wife is a greater punishment than any House of Commons committee could inflict”.

In the course of his speech, Rees-Mogg took numerous interventions, including many from Opposition members who accused the Conservatives of rallying round to defend one of their mates.

Caroline Lucas, for the Greens, was one who of those who said that was how the whole thing would look to members of the public. Rees-Mogg replied that “sometimes to do the right thing one has to accept a degree of opprobrium”.

Thangam Debbonaire, the Shadow Leader of the House, accused the supporters of the amendment of seeking to “turn the clock back before 1695”, when rules forbidding paid advocacy – the offence of which Paterson is accused – were first introduced.

She argued that “just changing the system when someone doesn’t like a result is not acceptable”.

Pete Wishart, for the SNP, said the supporters of the amendment were just trying to “turn back the clock to the worst excesses of 1990s Tory sleaze”.

He admitted this would suit the SNP. One could see that Wishart himself, along with many others who condemned the amendment, was longing for the Tories to live down to the low opinion which so many on the Left have of them.

Leadsom insisted her amendment was “not about letting anyone off”, but  Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) said it “looks like we’re moving the goalposts”, so he could not vote for it.

Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda), who chairs the Committee on Standards, expressed sympathy with Paterson but strongly defended the sentence of 30 days’ suspension passed on him, and said “retrospective legislation to favour or damage an individual is immoral”.

The Leadsom amendment was passed by 250 votes to 232, which meant over 100 Tory MPs had either abstained, or in 13 cases had voted against it.

What an uneasy afternoon this was, which was as it should be, for it ought not to be easy to wreck a duly elected MP’s reputation and career, and the responsibility for doing so must ultimately rest with the House of Commons itself.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Cummings explains why it is safer to be a gambler than a bureaucrat

17 Mar

Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.

Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.

If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.

Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.

About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.

Cummings instead remarked:

“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.

“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.

It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.

A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”

Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.

Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.

In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.

Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”

Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.

Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”

He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.

“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”

The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.