Johnson – off the hook with some voters, on it with more Conservative MPs
- “If the row drags on for a few days, let alone gets noisier, he will fall back from that dead end”, I wrote of Boris Johnson on Tuesday evening – suggesting that the Government had advanced into a cul-de-sac from which only the escape route was retreat.
- The Prime Minister didn’t get where he is today without knowing when to cut and run. And so he did – even faster than I expected. Downing Street sources say that he was outraged by Owen Paterson’s unrepentant interview with Sky on Tuesday.
- That the Paterson story was bursting through on news bulletins and front pages, and that the Government’s plan to deal with it won by a majority of only 18; that this slender majority confirmed backbench discontent and that the Opposition made the scheme inoperable…all this may say more about why Johnson fell back.
- Downing Street knows that claims of “Tory sleaze” are like a fire in a wood. Most of the time, it will burn itself out. But there is always a risk that it will set the forest ablaze. Hence the Prime Minister’s rush to stamp the flames out quickly. My best guess is that he has succeeded.
- Then again, constituents aren’t marched up the hill and down again – as Conservative MPs were yesterday. They went under fire in that dead end. They felt the heat from the flames. Andrea Leadsom fronted for the plan. John Whittingdale was approached to chair the new committee. And all for nothing.
- Which is part of a repeated pattern – stretching from the privatisation of forests in David Cameron’s time to the treatment of sewage only last month. The Prime Minister has lost a bit more capital in the bank of his backbenchers’ good will.
Who’s to blame for the debacle: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Spencer…or all of them?
- If you’re backing a scheme that requires Opposition support – such as a new Select Committee to examine the Paterson case, specifically, and the Standards regime, more broadly – it’s essential to have it in the bag before launching it in the Commons. So why did the Government press ahead without it?
- Jacob Rees-Mogg backed the plan in the Chamber: it was plain both from his speech and from this week’s Moggcast that he was opposed to the Standards Committee’s Paterson proposal. However, some of his friends blame the whips for screwing up the numbers. “Not the Chief Whip’s finest hour,” said one.
- Certainly, whips rang round backbenchers urging them to sign the amendment that Andrea Leadsom presented. Some of them did so on trust, and later regretted it. “I felt sorry for Owen because of his wife’s death,” one said, “and didn’t know that Labour weren’t squared”.
- But while those friends of Rees-Mogg blame the whips, friends of the whips blame…Rees-Mogg. “The plan was pushed by the Leader’s office,” said one. “We rang round backbenchers over the weekend about the original proposals. But there was no time to do so over the amendment. Or to square the Opposition”.
- Nonetheless, the source of the plan wasn’t the Leader of the Commons, let alone the whips. Rather, it was Paterson’s backers and friends in the Parliamentary Party. But the reticence of MPs who weren’t among them turned out to be a better guide to the backbench mood than the protests of those who were.
- The Prime Minister must be added to this contested roll-call of those responsible – not so much for his place at the head of the Government as his history with the Standards Commissioner who, remember, found that he was in breach of Commons rules over his Mustique holiday.
Richardson restored, Bryant triumphant…and the Commissioner still in place
- Angela Richardson must enter the lists for the quickest sacking and reappointment in history. On Wednesday, she was out: dismissed as PPS to Michael Gove for refusing to back the amendment. By earlier today, she was back in.
- Chris Bryant and his committee have been criticised not so much for the verdict they passed on Paterson as for the sentence – not least by me. But whether they were right or wrong, Bryant has emerged as a winner. Johnson’s plan would have scuppered his committee. Instead, his Commons speech scuppered the plan.
- Above all, Kathryn Stone is still in place. Some Conservative MPs believe that she is biased generally against them and specifically against Brexiteers. But fear of their constituents ultimately proved a stronger force than revenge against the Commissioner.
The tragedy of the Paterson family
- Spouses matter in politics: think Denis Thatcher or Cherie Blair…or, for that matter, Carrie Johnson. So do children. Paterson’s resignation statement suggested that they persuaded him to quit – and its account of Labour MPs mocking his bereavement was heartbreaking. Be sure that they will be named and shamed.
- But in any event, the Prime Minister’s U-turn left him nowhere to go. Suspension for 30 days and a recall petition loomed. Yes, he could have sought the Tory by-election candidacy. And yes, he could have stood as an independent had he been denied it – exposed, as the Conservatives now are, to a latter-day Martin Bell.
- It would have been a humiliating end to a fine career. Though his fate is scarcely better: his name tarnished, his wife dead, and the good work of the trust named after her endangered.
- Had he bent to the prevailing wind and apologised, he would have faced a lesser penalty and be an MP still. But Paterson has never been a man to bend. It was his making, and has been his undoing.