Anthony Browne: What is the point of the Liberal Democrats, other than to offer a refuge to protest voters?

16 May

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.

And the winner is…the Liberal Democrats.  At the recent local elections, Britain’s fourth party (remember the SNP) gained more council seats than any other. And judging by their reaction, they clearly missed the lessons about being magnanimous in victory. 

They declared they were on course to take many Conservative marginal constituencies, including those of Dominic Raab, Alex Chalk and my own. They recently won Owen Paterson’s previously safe Tory seat of North Shropshire in a by-election, and are determined to repeat the trick in the upcoming by-election in Tiverton and Honiton.

So the Lib Dems back? Many voters didn’t forgive them for going into coalition with Conservatives in 2010 in the wave of Cleggmania, and they were wiped out as a national force in 2015. One of the key political questions now is whether they are on the brink of a national resurgence. Will the Conservatives shoring up the Red Wall in the North lead to the crumbling of a blue wall in the South?

To understand the threat, one needs to understand how the Lib Dems work – and they are not like the two main political parties. Few political commentators realise how different they are. Their performance at local elections is strong for a party that is, let’s be honest, invisible nationally.

did not have many surprises entering Parliament in 2019, but one of them was the total irrelevance of the Lib Dems at a national level. There are just too few of them to have any impact. They don’t sit on many committees (for example, I am on the Treasury Select Committee, which has no Lib Dem member), they don’t pass any amendments, they don’t lead many debates. On good days, their leader will be allowed to ask a question.

However, the Lib Dems are rampant in quite a few Conservative constituencies. Local Tories often wonder why people support the Lib Dems. There is no identifiable belief system (at least not any more). People who support free enterprise will generally be Conservative, and those who support socialism will tend to support LabourBut what is Lib Demmery?

Traditionally the answer to why people support the Lib Dems is that they provid a protest vote. They are the “none of the above” party, defined by what they aren’t rather than what they are. That works wonders in by-elections after a scandal, such as in North Shropshire.

It is true that they facilitate a protest vote but, like other Conservatibe MPs involved in daily street-by-street battles with the Lib Dems, I know there is more than that.

In South Cambridgeshire, as in some other areas, they are in power in local government, and so locally they are not a protest voteRather than being the local representatives of national parties, they position themselves as valiant local champions serving their communities.

Their voluminous election literature positions them as “local campaigners”, while their opponents are just interested in national glory and “don’t care” about local voters who they “take for granted. The irony is that the Lib Dem message of how they are just local champions is actually used nationally – their leaflets are verbatim copies in their battlegrounds across the country.

The main reason that people become activists for the Lib Dems is simple: they are asked. Lots of Lib Dem activists admit privately they are actually instinctively conservatives, but got drawn into Lib Dem campaigning. Most Lib Dem activists aren’t actually members of the party, but rather people who have been asked and agreed to help out to do something “for their community.

In many places, they have huge delivery networks of activists, enabling them to put out leaflets with wonderous frequency. Astonishingly, national Tory strategists have discovered that some of those people who deliver Lib Dem leaflets are actually Conservative Party members.

In contrast to other parties, the Lib Dems have an election strategy which they write down in books and publish in pamphlets, and aim to replicate constituency by constituency. Their strategy is to engage community campaigners, and start with hyper-local campaigning, on almost street by street issues.

Infiltrate parish councils, and politicise them. Establish your name and stand for district councils, the county council – and then Parliament. They don’t fight in the air wars of the media waves, but rely instead on their almost limitless ground troops to fight house to house. It is bottom up, rather than top down.

Being the political underdog at a national level gives them an often rather distinct self-rightousness, which leads them to believing the end justifies the means. Their election literature is by far the most negative of any party. Their canvassers spread slander (during the general election, they openly spread false stories about me). A Labour MP said to me last week: “aren’t the Lib Dems just foul?”.

that The fact they have no real policy beliefs – do they like higher taxes or not? – and think the ends justify the means, leads to astoundingly hypocritical campaigns that are bewildering to their opponents. Labour and Conservatives try hard to have coherent local messages in local elections. The Lib Dems often end up campaigning against themselves in different parts of a district – basically telling voters whatever they want to hear. In the southern part of my constituency they campaigned to push a trainline to the North, and in the northern part they campaigned to push it to the south. They campaign against something, get elected, and then quickly change position.

Because they are essentially a party of protest, opposing what anyone in a position of responsibility does, they often struggle with actually running local government. Being in power involves making difficult decisions, and justifying them. For the Lib Dems, the tactic is to deny responsibility for their own decisions, and take credit for anything that is good, even if they have nothing to do with it.

In South Cambridgeshire, they have decided to build far more houses than the national government thinks is necessary, but rather than defend it they try to blame their unpopular decision on national government. They Conservative Government has decided to build a very popular Cambridge South station, which the Lib Dems take credit for.

So what is the actual point of the Lib Dems as a political party? Many of their opponents see them as politically parasitical opportunists. Saying anything to get into power, taking no responsibility for what they actually do, and taking credit for the work of others. But they at least inject competition into local politics.

The only way the Conservatives will beat the Lib Dems is not to defeat them in the TV studios or policy discussions or in newspaper columns. As we have shown in those areas of the country where we have beaten them back, we have to recruit our own ground troops to campaign on the doors and in the village halls. We need our own local champions campaigning on local issues. We need to out Lib Dem the Lib Dems. As the Lib Dem campaign strategy says: you win where you work.

Sunak distances himself from Johnson over the Paterson case

12 Nov

Rishi Sunak doesn’t seem to have sought to distance himself from Boris Johnson over the Government’s handling of the Owen Paterson case.  The context was an interview yesterday about the latest growth figures.

During the course of the conversation, he was bound to be asked about Paterson – and if his Conservative colleagues should have been whipped to vote against the former MP’s suspension.

In conceding that the Government had got it wrong, the Chancellor said much the same as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Barclay in the Commons last week.

But not exactly the same – and the difference is worth pondering for a moment; as is that between Sunak and those two of his Ministerial colleagues.

The Chancellor said that “we do have established independent parliamentary processes that govern all of these things and it’s absolutely right that those are followed to the letter”.

Which suggests that Conservative MPs should at the very least have been free to vote in favour of suspending Paterson for 30 days – the recommendation that those “independent parliamentary processes” agreed.

Furthermore, sources close to Sunak are keen to stress to ConservativeHome that the Cabinet was never consulted about the original Paterson vote.  Or, to put it more pithily: nothing to do with me, guv!

The Chancellor also said that “reflecting on all of these things over recent days, for us as a government, we need to do better than we did last week and we know that”.

This is as close to the apology that the Prime Minister hasn’t given as Sunak will have thought he could get away with without generating headlines about “splits”.

The point about the difference between this Chancellor, say, and Barclay or Rees-Mogg is that neither of the latter are possible next leaders of the Conservative Party.

Sunak could simply have said that the original decision was wrong.  By suggesting the Government must raise its game, he reminded viewers that there is future Tory leadership available should Johnson and a bus get tangled up in Whitehall.

It would be defter, slicker, more alert to Parliamentary opinion, and better at handling U-turns – as it has proved over the decision first to go off, and then perhaps to go back on, the 0.7 per cent target for international aid spending.

Or so the man who came top of this site’s last Future Conservative Leader survey would like you to believe.  Especially now that the Prime Minister has promoted another possible contender, in a classic divide-and-rule power play: Liz Truss.

It may well be that you couldn’t care less about these marginal differences and textual analyses.  But you are not the audience that Sunak has in mind.  For the moment, he is concentrated on another: Tory MPs.

Daniel Hannan: Proposals to restrict MPs’ outside work run up against the same problem. What are good and bad jobs?

10 Nov

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

When the epidemic hit, Maria Caulfield didn’t hang around. The good-natured Tory whip swapped her parliamentary attire for scrubs and rushed to help on the Covid ward at the Royal Marsden. It was the state of hospitals in Sussex that had brought her into politics in the first place and, after being elected as the MP for Lewes in 2015, she carried on putting in shifts as an NHS nurse.

Does anyone think that the country would be better off if Caulfield had had to give up nursing on being elected? I don’t just mean that it is handy to have an extra nurse (though it is). I mean that Parliament is enhanced by her front-line perspective. She is like one of those uniformed MPs one sees in images from 1940 making a last contribution before being deployed.

Of course, in their day, it never occurred to anyone to complain about MPs having “second jobs”. Indeed, few people thought of being an MP as a job. Rather, being elected to Parliament was thought to confer a privilege (speaking in the supreme counsels of our nation) with commensurate responsibility (representing everyone else).

The professionalisation of politics is a recent phenomenon. Well into the 1970s, we still cherished the idea of citizen-legislators bringing outside interests to the table. It was in the late 20th century that attitudes began to shift. Some MPs – often Liberal Democrats – made a big deal of promising “to work full time for you”. Parliamentary salaries rose. Then, starting in 1995, MPs began to be invigilated by various committees rather than, as had been the case for the previous seven centuries, held to account by their constituents. Before long, keeping your hand it as a lecturer or solicitor became known, at least in newspapers, as “moonlighting”.

Has the quality of our MPs materially improved in consequence? The country is conflicted on the issue of outside work, torn between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, voters think that (as Labour’s Jon Trickett put it on Monday) “being an MP is a full time job: if you’re doing it properly you wouldn’t have time to be doing a second job”; on the other, they complain that we have “too many career politicians”.

It is the second impulse that is correct, as can be easily enough demonstrated. Easily enough, because lots of MPs hold down other jobs in a way that doesn’t bother anyone, even Jon Trickett. That is, they serve as ministers. Being a minister is far more time-consuming than being a barrister or serving on a company board. It also involves an inescapable conflict of interest, since the role of a minister is to exercise state power and the role of an MP is to constrain it.

You might say that we should make an exception for ministers. Fine, but you have conceded the principle that an MP is capable of holding down a full-time job. All you’re doing is privileging a particular kind of job, thereby making MPs more dependent on the state and less in touch with the private sector.

All proposals to restrict outside work run up against the same problem, namely the presumption that there are “good” jobs and “bad” jobs. You might think that it’s fine to work as a nurse or an army reservist or a minister, but not as a consultant. But who gets to decide, and what basis?

On Monday, The Guardian listed 30 MPs who would be affected by a ban on consultancies. Among them was Labour’s Khalid Mahmoud, who is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, working on Islamist extremism. Again, does anyone seriously think the world would be a better place if Khalid, who was Britain’s sole Muslim MP for a time, in which role he served as a level-headed representative for his co-religionists from around the country, was not allowed to put that experience to good use?

The reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to ban, not the holding of any particular job, but the lobbying of Parliament on behalf of outside paymasters. And you know what? That is precisely what we do. Pretty much everything that could be written about l’affaire Paterson has been written.

But, whatever view you take, one thing is undeniable: we enforce the ban on paid advocacy. You can argue that Paterson was harshly treated given that he believed he was behaving correctly and made no effort to hide his actions. Or you can argue that that’s hard cheese and dura lex sed lex and so forth. What you can’t argue is that we show the slightest tolerance for paid lobbying by MPs.

Sadly, that distinction is being lost as, from a combination of opportunism, populism and envy, commentators and even some MPs deliberately give the impression that private sector work per se is discreditable. It is not a new phenomenon. The increasing intolerance for outside jobs was one of the factors that drove the editor of this website out of Parliament – not because he was impacted personally, but because he foresaw that it would lead to a decline in the quality of MPs.

You can agree or disagree with him. My view, for what it’s worth, is influenced by my having become a working peer in February. There are few arguments in favour of how members of the House of Lords are appointed; but there are plenty in favour of how they are remunerated. Peers are not paid a salary (though they get a per diem allowance), but are instead expected to have real-world jobs.

There are various elected chambers around the world, from Texas to Switzerland, where something along these lines pertains – that is, where legislators are given some compensation in recognition of their time, but expected to carry on with whatever they were already doing. They share the ups and downs of the economy and, as a bonus, they spend less time sitting, leading to fewer laws and so to higher growth.

I accept that we are unlikely to replicate (or, more correctly, return to) that approach. But let’s not make matters even worse. Instead of complaining about “second jobs”, let’s treat being an MP as your second job and bring back citizen-legislators.

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.

“My children have asked me to leave politics altogether.” Paterson quits as an MP. His full statement.

4 Nov

“I have today, after consultation with my family, and with much sadness decided to resign as the MP for North Shropshire.

The last two years have been an indescribable nightmare for my family and me.

My integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned.

I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.

I, my family and those closest to me know the same. I am unable to clear my name under the current system.

Far, far worse than having my honesty questioned was, of course, the suicide of my beloved and wonderful wife, Rose.

She was everything to my children and me. We miss her everyday and the world will always be grey, sad and ultimately meaningless without her.

The last few days have been intolerable for us.

Worst of all was seeing people, including MPs, publicly mock and deride Rose’s death and belittle our pain.

My children have therefore asked me to leave politics altogether, for my sake as well as theirs.

I agree with them.

I do not want my wife’s memory and reputation to become a political football. Above all, I always put my family first.

This is a painful decision but I believe the right one.

I have loved being the MP for North Shropshire and have considered it a privilege to have been elected to serve my constituents for 24 years.

I would like to thank my staff who have worked for me so loyally over many years.

I also want to thank those who have stood by me so staunchly.

I wish them all the best in that difficult but vital job of being a Member of Parliament.

I will remain a public servant but outside the cruel world of politics.

I intend to devote myself to public service in whatever ways I can but especially in the world of suicide prevention.

At this incredibly difficult time for my family, we ask that the media respects our privacy and lets us grieve my beloved Rose, the best person I ever met.”

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.

Anthony Mangnall: It’s time to overhaul Parliament’s out-of-date standards procedures

3 Nov

Anthony Mangnall is Member of Parliament for Totnes.

Being a Member of Parliament is a huge honour. Six hundred and fifty of us have the privilege of being able to represent our respective constituencies in Westminster.

For all the pleasure of being elected it is also worth noting that it comes with huge sacrifices, scrutiny and pressure.

In the two years since I have been elected, I have found colleagues to be decent, hardworking individuals with a desire to see the very best for the country and their constituents. That duty of care and dedication to public service is often mocked and sometimes overlooked, but it is ever present.

Being in such a position of power and responsibility means that we are held to the highest of standards. We all know it and we should all expect it. After all you don’t come into politics and expect not to be in the public eye.

However, if we are expected to adhere to the highest of standards then should we not be entitled to a more robust and equal system of representation when it comes to parliamentary standards?

The recent House of Commons Committee on Standards report on Owen Paterson is unique case in point. As an MP, it is important to question the process and systems in place that lead to judgements that can effectively end careers.

For a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to offer a judgement of guilty before an investigation has run it course seems remarkably outdated. A judgement made before witnesses and the accused have even been interviewed does not demonstrate justice but a biased procedure that leaves every Member of Parliament without the free and fair judicial process that is available to every other citizen of the United Kingdom.

Not only this, but I can find no examples of private businesses or charitable organisations that would be able to run an investigation into an employee in the same way as the one that has been conducted into Paterson. The reason for which is that legal proceedings would undoubtedly be conducted against any organisation that behaved in such a manner.

Parliamentary privilege may protect us from a litany of legal challenges, but it must not prevent an accused Member from being able to defend themselves against accusations. Owen has stated his desire not to hide behind Parliamentary privilege but to have his day in court.  Surely Parliament should not be afraid its own judicial system?

I accept that parliamentary proceedings can be complicated, that the rules and regulations are lengthy and often make turgid reading.

But every MP, just as every citizen does, has the right to a free and fair trial. Failure to have a system or standard of equivalence to the rest of the country means that it is surely time to reconsider the current Commissioner role.

Rather than rely on an outside figure, hired to do the job, surely it is time to consider the huge resources of those in the House of Lords with legal backgrounds. Three peers could be appointed to preside over concerns of standards. Their prior knowledge and legal understanding could bring parity with the outside world and how the judicial system actually operates as well as conducting a fair workplace investigation.

Added to which, an accused Member should have the right of response and challenge.

I don’t know Paterson all that well. But I do believe that all MPs of every colour have the right to be under a system that is fair and equitable to that of the outside world.

‘The cost… has been catastrophic.’ Paterson’s statement on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ inquiry.

26 Oct

Media Statement from Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP
Tuesday 16th October 2021

  • The process I have been subject to does not comply with natural justice
  • I raised very serious issues i.e., the fact that milk and ham were contaminated with carcinogenic prohibited substances and that milk contained residues that cause AMR, which is predicted to be a major cause of worldwide death by 2050 – lives will have been saved
  • No proper investigation was undertaken by the Commissioner or the Committee
  • I was pronounced guilty by the Commissioner without being spoken to and the 17 witnesses who came forward to support me were also not spoken to and their written evidence ignored
  • Unchallenged witness evidence must be accepted within any fair process 
  • The Commissioner has admitted making her mind up before speaking to me or any witnesses
  • This process would not survive a challenge in Court but Parliamentary Privilege denies me access to the court
  • There has been an absolute denial of justice which must be seen to be done and not delayed – this has taken 2 years
  • I am not guilty and a fair process would exonerate me
  • I challenge Parliament to waive privilege and permit me to prove my case in Court
  • I lost my beloved wife of 40 years and this process was a major contributory factor 

On 30 October 2019 the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards wrote to me informing me that she was starting an Inquiry following an article in The Guardian. This raised some questions regarding my publicly disclosed paid consultancies for Randox Laboratories and Lynn’s Country Foods Ltd.

Anyone who has been involved in a workplace investigation knows that the allegations are first put to the accused, usually in a meeting and then the investigation collects the evidence which involves speaking to witnesses.

The Commissioner didn’t speak to me until after she had made up her mind and that is admitted by her. The Commissioner and the Committee didn’t speak to any of the numerous witnesses at any stage.

The allegations were not put to me until AFTER the Commissioner admits she had made up her mind.

This is a biased process and not fair. It offends against the basic standard of procedural fairness that no one should be found guilty until they have had a chance to be heard and to present their evidence including their witnesses.

The Commissioner told me that she conducted an investigative process and she alone would decide what investigations would be undertaken. I was not permitted to know what steps the Commissioner was taking or invited to make suggestions as to who she should speak to.

As I answered the questions put to me, the Inquiry was broadened out, far beyond the original accusations made by The Guardian. As I answered one allegation, another different one was presented.  My responses were seemingly ignored.

The Inquiry has been protected by Parliamentary Privilege. I have been forbidden to challenge this unfair process or even discuss it, as the Inquiry must remain confidential until the outcome is published.

I reject completely the findings of the Committee for Parliamentary Standards. The methods of the investigation do not create a just and fair outcome.  Most importantly, not one of my 17 witnesses have been interviewed during the course of the investigation despite the passage of 24 months – not by the Commissioner, and not by the Committee. These highly reputable and reliable witnesses are the very people who say I am not guilty. What court, what work-place investigation, would ignore such evidence and call its procedures fair?

The Commissioner’s failure to investigate matters led to some bizarre decisions. For example, the Commissioner initially found that I didn’t speak to certain key officials who I should have spoken to about contaminated milk. In fact, I not only spoke to them, but I subsequently set up the Milk Quality Forum to help improve milk safety. Some of those officials who I was accused of not meeting attended all our meetings and we had most productive discussions, recommending measures to protect consumers. They gave evidence for me, which was ignored.

I am found guilty of non-declaration of interests when the substantial volume of witness evidence is that I always declare my interests

One of the formal and stated House of Commons requirements of an investigation such as this is that natural justice must be applied. That key requirement was breached, and the conclusions reached by the investigation are thereby unreliable.

I raised serious issues of food contaminated with unlawful carcinogenic substances, to protect the public. I did not gain any benefit, financial or otherwise, either for myself or for either of the two companies that I advise.  Neither has any evidence of gain by those companies been suggested.

My actions are permitted by the rules of the House. I acted properly in raising serious issues of health and officials I engaged with have accepted this.

The MPs’ Code of Conduct says that ‘Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole’. The rules clearly permit all MPs to initiate discussions with ministers and officials to address ‘a serious wrong or substantial injustice’. I was acting in the public interest when I raised these 3 issues of public health:

1.     The fact that milk in supermarkets was found to contain an antibiotic residue, Florfenicol, which is prohibited in dairy cows and prohibited from being present in milk because it is a danger to health. Parents would want to know that the milk they were buying for their children could increase the risk and spread of antimicrobial resistance which the World Health Organisation says will be the biggest killer worldwide by 2040. I would not wish to conceal this knowledge from the public or from Government having gained knowledge of it.

2.     The fact that a foreign food manufacturer was marketing a ‘natural ham’ that contained a banned carcinogenic nitrite that is recognised as a significant cause of bowel cancer. I would not be fulfilling my duty as an MP if I kept this matter concealed. Full disclosure was in the interests of the public. The company which had been using this banned chemical would also want to know and correct its product. As a result of my intervention the prohibited substance was removed.

3.     A priority for UK overseas aid is the improvement of health in developing countries.  This objective, and our resources, are undermined by the very poor application of laboratory quality control systems in some countries – to ensure reliable results and diagnoses.  As a result of frequent misdiagnoses, lives are lost and valuable healthcare resources wasted.  Any MP with this knowledge has a duty to share it for the benefit of the recipients of UK overseas aid and for effective use of significant sums of taxpayers’ money.  Here is a serious wrong that the UK can readily address.

The rules are specific that MPs may raise a ‘serious wrong or a substantial injustice’ even if they or their external associates benefit incidentally, but neither Randox nor Lynn’s had any benefit (incidental or otherwise) from my actions to protect the public.

Despite this tortuous and inadequate investigation, I would not hesitate to act in the same way again if confronted with new information about serious harms or wrongs requiring urgent remedy. I would also expect other MPs to do the same as it is no less than the public would demand.

As a result of my interventions, staple foods consumed by millions, milk and ham, are now safer than before.  Experts in Overseas Development now know that many of their laboratories abroad are underperforming, failing to protect the health of aid recipients and potentially wasting UK taxpayers’ money.

On a personal level, the cost to me and my three grown-up children from the manner of this investigation has been catastrophic. Last summer, in the midst of the investigation, my wife of 40 years, Rose, took her own life. We will never know definitively what drove her to suicide, but the manner in which this investigation was conducted undoubtedly played a major role.

Rose would ask me despairingly every weekend about the progress of the inquiry, convinced that the investigation would go to any lengths to somehow find me in the wrong. The longer the investigation went on and the more the questions went further and further from the original accusations, the more her anxiety increased. She felt beleaguered as I was bound by confidentiality and could not discuss this Inquiry with anyone else. She became convinced that the investigation would destroy my reputation and force me to resign my North Shropshire seat that I have now served for 24 years. She would also be a casualty, forced to resign her post as Chairman of Aintree Racecourse and a Steward of the Jockey Club, two roles of which she was rightly enormously proud.

I believe that no other MP should ever again be subject to this shockingly inadequate process. As in normal judicial proceedings, MPs subject to investigations must have a chance to see their evidence fully considered. There must be no mystery about interpretations of law that investigations apply. The Committee for Standards has been clear that the Office of the Commissioner is under an obligation to respond to points made by MPs under investigation. Normal judicial processes, such as the levelling of charges and the interviewing of witnesses, must be followed. If witness evidence is not challenged, it must stand.  It is absolutely extraordinary that not one of the 17 witnesses, all of whom supported my narrative, were never contacted let alone spoken to by the Commissioner or the Committee.

Parliament’s internal system of justice needs to operate properly within the principles of natural justice.

In my case, I am very clear that I acted properly and within the rules, putting my lifetime experience, my many years as an MP and my service as a Cabinet Minister towards ensuring the public good.

I am quite clear that I acted properly, honestly and within the Rules.

‘Paterson’s actions were an egregious case of paid advocacy’. The Committee on Standards publishes its report.

26 Oct

The Committee on Standards’ report briefly summarises the Commissioner’s findings before setting out the Committee’s own analysis and conclusions.

The Commissioner’s findings

Mr Paterson has been a paid consultant to Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, since August 2015, and a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of meat products including ‘nitrite-free’ products, since December 2016.

The Commissioner found that Mr Paterson had breached the rule prohibiting paid advocacy, set out in paragraph 11 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, in making three approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Randox and the testing of antibiotics in milk in November 2016 and November 2017; in making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn’s Country Foods in November 2017, January 2018 and July 2018; and in making four approaches to Ministers at the Department for International Development relating to Randox and blood testing technology in October 2016 and January 2017.

The Commissioner also found that Mr Paterson had breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on declarations of interest, by failing to declare his interest as a paid consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency on 16 November 2016, 15 November 2017, 8 January 2018 and 17 January 2018.

Lastly, the Commissioner found that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, by using his parliamentary office on 25 occasions for business meetings with his clients between October 2016 and February 2020; and in sending two letters, on 13 October 2016 and 16 January 2017, relating to his business interests, on House of Commons headed notepaper. Following further evidence from Mr Paterson, the Committee accepted that the number of meetings in question was 16, not 25 – though the Committee questioned why Mr Paterson could not have made this further evidence available to the Commissioner during her investigation.

Mr Paterson acknowledged that his use of headed notepaper for two letters relating to his business interests breached the rules of the House and apologised to the Commissioner and to the Committee for doing so. Mr Paterson maintained that he had not breached the Code in any other respect.

On the conclusion of the investigation the Commissioner’s draft memorandum was made available to Mr Paterson, in December 2020.

The Committee’s findings

The Committee noted at the beginning of its report that it was “painfully conscious that Mr Paterson lost his wife in tragic circumstances in June 2020; and we wish to express our deepest sympathy to him for his loss. This last year must have been very distressing for him and we have taken these circumstances fully into account in considering Mr Paterson’s conduct during the period of the investigation”, and recorded that it had “striven to ensure that Mr Paterson has had every opportunity to represent himself as fully as possible before the Committee, in person and in writing. We have extended deadlines at his request and we have accepted his request to be accompanied by his legal advisers and to make a formal opening statement to us”. However, the Committee noted that the allegations against Mr Paterson, which are the subject of the Commissioner’s memorandum, relate to his conduct between October 2016 and February 2020, before Mrs Paterson’s death. The Committee stated that “it is these allegations on which we are required to adjudicate, impartially, without fear or favour, and with a sole eye to the rules of the House and the requirements of natural justice”.

The Committee found that Mr Paterson repeatedly used his position as a Member to promote the companies by whom he was paid, and therefore breached paragraph 11 of the 2015 MP’s Code of Conduct.

The report noted that there was no immediate financial benefit secured by Randox or Lynn’s, but that Mr Paterson’s approaches could clearly have conferred significant benefits on Randox and Lynn’s in the long term and even in the short term secured meetings that would not have been available without Mr Paterson’s involvement.

Mr Paterson argued that the majority of his approaches fell within the ‘serious wrong’ exemption in the lobbying rules, which permit an MP to approach a responsible Minister or public official with evidence of a “serious wrong or substantial injustice” which would otherwise breach the lobbying rules, as long as any benefit conferred is “incidental”. With the exception of his meeting on 15 November 2016 with the Food Standards Agency regarding milk testing, the Committee doesn’t accept that Mr Paterson’s approaches fell within the ‘serious wrong’ exemption. Mr Paterson argued that the remaining approaches, namely his contact with the Food Standards Agency in 2018, were not in breach of the rules because the FSA had raised an issue with him. The Committee concluded that Mr Paterson had in fact raised the issue with the FSA and therefore breached the rules. Approaches under the ‘serious wrong’ exemption may only be made “exceptionally”. The Committee report concluded that “it stretches credulity to suggest that fourteen approaches to Ministers and public officials were all attempts to avert a serious wrong rather than to favour Randox and Lynn’s, however much Mr Paterson may have persuaded himself he is in the right.”

Mr Paterson told the Commissioner, and the Committee, that he was fully aware of his obligations under the paid advocacy rules when he acted, but was relying, having neither consulted the rules nor sought advice, on a recollection that the rules made provision for “exceptional circumstances”. The Committee concluded that, at best, Mr Paterson was relying on an exemption he thought probably existed but of whose terms he was unsure and at worst, Mr Paterson was knowingly in breach of the lobbying rules.

The Committee agreed with the Commissioner that Mr Paterson’s breaches of the paid advocacy rule are of sufficient seriousness also to have caused “significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole”, and therefore also conclude that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 16 of the 2015 Code of Conduct.

The Committee also concurred with the Commissioner that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 13 of the 2015 Code of Conduct in failing to declare an interest in four emails to officials at the Food Standards Agency. The Committee accepted that Mr Paterson was more punctilious in declaring his interest in meetings, and those with whom Mr Paterson dealt were probably aware of the capacity in which he was acting, and therefore also agreed with the Commissioner that, taken alone, this was a minor breach of the Code.

The Committee found, following additional written evidence from Mr Paterson, that he breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 Code of Conduct, on use of parliamentary facilities, in holding 16 meetings relating to his outside business interests in his parliamentary office between October 2016 and February 2020.

The Committee also agreed with the Commissioner that Mr Paterson breached paragraph 15 of the 2015 Code of Conduct in sending two letters relating to his business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper. The Committee noted that Mr Paterson promptly acknowledged the latter breach and apologised. Taken alone, the Committee regards this as a very minor breach of the rules.

Mr Paterson made a number of arguments and allegations about the process followed in this case. The Committee addressed each of Mr Paterson’s arguments in detail in the report and set out its reasons for rejecting them.

In an article on 19 October 2021, the Daily Mail claimed that it had received a leaked copy of Mr Paterson’s statement to the Committee and proceeded to relay a series of allegations Mr Paterson had made. The only people known to have access to the information were Committee members, a small number of House of Commons staff and Mr Paterson and his advisers. Every member of the Committee and staff who had access to the transcript has stated on record that they did not leak the transcript. The Committee condemns this leak, and considers that it was probably an attempt to bounce the Committee or seek parliamentary privilege for potentially actionable comments.

The Committee’s conclusions and recommended sanctions

The Committee commented that it does not doubt that Mr Paterson sincerely believes that he has acted properly. Mr Paterson is clearly convinced in his own mind that there could be no conflict between his private interest and the public interest in his actions in this case. But it is this same conviction that meant that Mr Paterson failed to establish the proper boundaries between his private commercial work and his parliamentary activities, as set out in the Guide to the Rules. The Committee concluded that being able to judge the difference between one’s private, personal interest and the public interest is at the very heart of public service and a senior member of the House with many years standing should be able to make that distinction more clearly.

In accordance with normal practice, before considering sanctions the Committee noted any aggravating or mitigating factors in the case. Aggravating factors included:

  • No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests.
  • Mr Paterson’s financial remuneration from Randox and Lynn’s amounted to nearly three times his annual parliamentary salary.
  • Mr Paterson’s actions demonstrate a failure to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life.
  • Mr Paterson has made serious, personal, and unsubstantiated allegations against the integrity of the Commissioner and her team.
  • Mr Paterson is a former Minister, and an experienced long-serving Member of the House.

The Committee also noted mitigating factors, including:

  • Mr Paterson’s wife took her own life in June 2020. The Committee consider it very possible that grief and distress caused by this event has affected the way in which Mr Paterson approached the Commissioner’s investigation thereafter.
  • In respect of the breaches relating to use of his parliamentary office, Mr Paterson had suffered a period of ill health which made him less able easily to leave the parliamentary estate.
  • Regarding the breaches of paid advocacy rules, Mr Paterson has an evident passion for and expertise in food and farming matters which, in itself, is admirable, as long as it is channelled within the rules of the House.

The Committee determined that Mr Paterson’s actions, in particular those relating to paid advocacy, constitute a serious breach of the rules.

The Committee found that Mr Paterson’s actions were an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute.

In line with previous cases of a similar severity, the Committee recommends that Mr Paterson be suspended from the service of the House for 30 sitting days.

As the Government Deputy Chief Whip confirmed on 9 September 2021, it is the usual practice for the relevant motions to be tabled by the Government and debated as soon as possible. The Committee recorded its expectation that this should be within five sitting days of the publication of the report.

The full report is here.