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: MPs find more to say about the Duke because he did not always play it safe

12 Apr

At the age of 14, the future Leader of the Labour Party “was wandering around Dartmoor in a small team, with just a compass and a map in the pouring rain, frantically trying to find our way”.

A delightfully self-deprecatory touch as Sir Keir Starmer, as he has since become, paid tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh. He did not, however, go on to say that this had prepared him all too well for his present role as Labour Leader.

Sir Keir instead generalised his experience into the safer, but less amusing, “If that doesn’t prepare you for coming into politics, nothing will.”

Since the press would have quoted against him any suggestion that he and his small team are the ones “frantically trying to find our way”, he was perhaps right to play it safe.

But here is the dilemma of politics: does one sound dull and responsible, and get next no coverage, or go for one’s shots, and risk wilful misrepresentation on the front page?

Prince Philip used to take the latter course. Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, recalled that the Duke had “a keen appreciation of the value of anti-seriousness”, a phrase coined by the Duke himself.

Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, recalled another of the Duke’s dictums, applied to the length of speeches: “What the backside cannot endure, the brain cannot absorb.”

Blackford himself is sometimes accused of being long-winded. Today he was not.

But there were another 132 MPs yet to speak. Was this altogether wise?

For the eulogy is a difficult form, and as the Prime Minister had earlier remarked, the Duke “might be embarrassed or even faintly exasperated to receive these tributes”.

Boris Johnson had already touched on much of what needed to be said. He remarked that the Duke’s shipmates on HMS Wallace remembered how, during the invasion of Sicily, Prince Philip had improvised a decoy, “complete with fires to make it look like a stricken British vessel”, which was sunk by the enemy while the Wallace slipped away.

The Prime Minister also described, with relish, the Duke’s ability to drive “a coach and horses through the finer points of diplomatic protocol”, and offered a short catalogue of examples, including telling a British student in Papua New Guinea “that he was lucky not to be eaten”.

Fifteen years ago, in the pages of The Daily Telegraph, Johnson himself made a similarly tactless reference to Papua New Guinea.

Johnson today took pleasure in observing that people did not object to the Dukes’ gaffes:

“On the contrary, they overwhelmingly understood that he was trying to break the ice, to get things moving, to get people laughing and forget their nerves.”

It is difficult, when composing an eulogy, not to bring oneself into it, and many of those who spoke today quite rightly did so, by describing how the Duke had touched their lives.

He had a wider reach, and there is now more to say about him, because he had the courage not always to play it safe.

In 2021 the Union is in danger, but there is a way to ridicule and defeat the Nats

1 Jan

On Wednesday, Ian Blackford enlivened the start of the debate on the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill by insisting on a superfluous division and raising several spurious points of order.

The duty of the Opposition is to oppose, and as parliamentary leader of the Scottish nationalists he performed that function.

So although the thought of breaking the Union of 1707 fills me with horror – I believe the destruction of Great Britain would be “a monstrous act of vandalism” and turn England and Scotland into narrow-minded nations – one should perhaps, as one stumbles into the new year, lighten up occasionally, and admit that the Nats bring life to a House of Commons which might otherwise die of boredom.

Quentin Letts, sketchwriter for The Times, yesterday described them to ConHome as

“a sketchwriter’s dream – I often give thanks for them. Labour are a non-event. The Scots are always indignant about something.”

Boris Johnson has stolen many of Labour’s clothes, and with them many of Labour’s seats. He tore Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn’s palsied grasp, and on Wednesday left Sir Keir Starmer with no sane course but to follow in the Government’s wake.

Labour under its new leadership has not yet worked out what it believes in, who or what it is there to fight for.

The SNP knows exactly what it is fighting for, and can adopt the most irresponsible tactics as it strives to embarrass the British Government.

It hopes that this year will be its year, and that by sweeping the board at the Holyrood elections in May it will place Johnson under unbearable pressure to concede another referendum on independence.

It also regards Johnson as the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence. Kirsty Blackman (SNP, Aberdeen North) opened her speech in Wednesday’s debate by declaring:

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister. In recent years he has done more for the cause of Scottish independence than any other Unionist politician.”

And yet the role of Blackford and his colleagues at Westminster is not quite as easy as it looks. Later in her speech, Blackman said:

“I refuse to vote for this dreadful deal. It is a bit like we had been drinking a lovely glass of water. The Brexiteers offered the UK a malt whisky, but they are now saying that we will all die of thirst if we do not choose to drink the steaming mug of excrement that the UK Government are offering us. There is no way that I am choosing to drink that excrement, and neither will I be complicit in forcing my constituents to do so. Scotland’s future must be in Scotland’s hands, not those of the Prime Minister.”

This kind of horrible image, well calculated to appeal to the cybernats, gets any amount of play on social media. Blackman used the Commons as a broadcasting suite, with Twitter as the amplifier – an attitude by no means confined to the SNP.

But as a shrewd Scottish journalist remarked to ConHome, “There is a law of diminishing returns on that.”

He observed that if the SNP talks too often in that manner, respectable voters, whose support will be needed in the Holyrood elections and any subsequent referendum, will declare in a stern tone: “You’re an embarrassment to Scotland.”

And neither Blackford nor most of his colleagues wants to be an embarrassment to Scotland. They are not disgusting people, and in their most objectionable performances at Westminster there is a high degree of bogusness.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, put it to ConHome,

“The difficulty for Ian [Blackford] is that he’s such a fundamentally decent and nice man that he can’t really upset proceedings in the Commons. He’s not Parnell.”

Blackford’s speech in the debate was too long, and contained a flagrant inaccuracy about Scotland’s role in the Hanseatic League, identified by my colleague Henry Hill.

But as the next speaker, Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, remarked,

“The House will know that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is a more cheerful person than his speech suggested.”

Other witnesses have confirmed that Blackford, whatever his public awkwardness, is in private life a delightful man.

Because of the obstructionism of Charles Stewart Parnell and other Irish MPs in the late 19th century, the Commons amended its standing orders in order to prevent business being brought to a standstill.

So even if the SNP wished to wreck the Commons – and delightful people do sometimes feel an urge to wreck things – the necessary means are not to hand.

But most of the SNP MPs are not, at heart, wreckers. Many of them grow fond of the Commons. Just as a footballer cannot help feeling an affection for a stadium in which he or she scores goals, so a debater cannot help feeling an affection for a Chamber in which he or she scores points.

The SNP’s star players include Stuart McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East), Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) and Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East).

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) is described as being “terrific in the Defence Committee”.

And what is even more wonderful, some of these SNP MPs yearn to become members of the Privy Council, entitled to be addressed as Right Honourable, and sworn to defend Her Majesty the Queen against all assaults by her enemies.

In 2015, when the SNP made its great Westminster breakthrough, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats and supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the third party, its then parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, was made a Privy Counsellor, having been appointed a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

To compile a full list of the SNP MPs who yearn for this distinction would be beyond my powers, especially as those on the list might deny any desire for such a bauble.

But only last month Patrick Grady (Glasgow North), the SNP’s Chief Whip, remarked of his party’s longest serving MP, who was first elected in 2001:

“I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend —he really ought to be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).”

Grady is an amiable man, who may be presumed to know that Wishart (who incidentally would have loved to become Commons Speaker) would also love to become a privy counsellor, so entitled to be addressed in the Commons as right hon.

This streak of conservatism – of loyalty to existing institutions – within Scottish nationalism is not sufficiently appreciated.

Nor are the deep divisions within the SNP between supporters of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and supporters of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, sufficiently understood.

The Nats preserve an outer unity which is far from doing justice to their inner hatreds.

Their discipline renders them incapable of working out what to do when one of their number – for example Margaret Ferrier – strays from the strict path of virtue.

They are, in short, in many ways ludicrous. As Michael Gove, winding up Wednesday’s debate and using to the full the advantage of being born a Scotsman, asked:

“What have they said in the past? Nicola Sturgeon said that no deal would be a ‘catastrophic idea’, that the SNP could not ‘countenance in any way’ no deal, and that SNP MPs will do ‘everything possible’ to stop no deal—except, of course, by actually voting against it today.

“Indeed, so opposed to no deal was the SNP that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) went to court to ensure that if the Prime Minister took us out of the European Union without a deal, he would go to jail. Now the leader of the SNP is voting to take us out of the EU without a deal—something that his own party said should be an imprisonable offence. So what is he going to do now? Turn himself in? Submit to a citizen’s arrest at the hands of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West? If his party follows through on its previous convictions, I, of course, will campaign for him. The cry will go out from these Benches: ‘Free the Lochaber one!'”

The SNP ought not to be taken as seriously as it wishes us to take it. Much the best way to embarrass its members at Westminster would be to hail them as friends and fellow members of the Establishment.