The Paterson fallout. If your plan depends on Labour’s co-operation, might it not be a good idea to be sure that you have it?

4 Nov

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.

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: Raab fails to win friends and influence people

1 Sep

It is a rare gift to be able to spot the exceptional occasions in politics when all previous assumptions must be abandoned and precipitate action taken.

On the basis of Dominic Raab’s evidence this afternoon to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, nobody at a senior level in the Foreign Office possesses that gift.

The department seems to have been sunk in summer torpor as the Taliban advanced at lightening speed across Afghanistan.

Nobody in King Charles Street, or in Downing Street, had worked out that at this rate, Kabul would fall within weeks, days, even hours.

The conventional wisdom in Whitehall was that this was a time to relax, a chance to take oneself off and recover from the exertions of the past year. Even the Prime Minister had at long last departed for the West Country.

Raab himself was already on holiday in Crete, though he today refused, somewhat petulantly, to say on which day he had departed. He said he had already made “a fulsome statement” on that matter, unaware that the word “fulsome” means (as Chambers Dictionary puts it) “cloying or causing surfeit: nauseous: offensive: gross: rank: disgustingly fawning”.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary, to whom would normally fall the administrative responsibility for responding at high speed to the unfolding disaster, by assigning the people and other resources needed to carry out the evacuation, was likewise on holiday.

Tom Tugendhat (Con, Tonbridge and Malling), the chair of the committee, sought to establish how much attention ministers had been paying not only to Afghanistan, but to neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, through which evacuation by land might or might not be permitted.

The only conclusion to be drawn from Raab’s evidence was that almost no ministerial attention had been paid to those countries, few if any ministerial visits had been paid, and even ministerial telephone calls to their opposite numbers in those countries were almost unknown.

Nor did ministers consider it worth speaking to the British ambassadors in Kabul and neighbouring countries. That, the Foreign Secretary explained, was not how things worked: “All the ambassadors would feed in their advice.”

If any of the British diplomats on the spot sought to raise the alarm, and there is no evidence that any of them did, the message got lost as it travelled up the chain of command.

According to the central intelligence assessment in Whitehall, Raab told the committee, “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.

All he could offer, as evidence that Afghanistan had not been entirely forgotten in recent months, was the curious statistic that there had been “over 40 meetings” about Afghanistan in his department between mid-March and 30th August, which meant there had been “at least one” meeting “every four days”.

Kabul fell on 15th August, so one assumes the meetings became remarkably frequent in the last two weeks of that month, leaving not very many to cover the earlier period.

Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) reminded Raab that the Foreign Office’s travel advice for British nationals in Afghanistan only changed on 6th August.

Raab is now travelling to the region. “This isn’t the time to be making best friends,” Tugendhat remarked.

“Better late than never,” Raab might have replied.

The Foreign Secretary was tense, lucid, disciplined, unyielding and isolated, and had certainly not made best friends of the committee.