Boris Johnson has performed an extraordinary U-turn on controversial plans to overhaul the disciplinary process for MPs and review a senior Tory’s alleged breach of lobbying rules after widespread outrage.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would now seek “cross-party” changes to the system after Labour and other opposition parties refused to take part in a “corrupt” Tory-led committee tasked with the review.
And he suggested any changes may not “apply retrospectively” after the Government came under intense criticism for blocking Owen Paterson’s immediate suspension after he was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.
Government sources indicated Mr Paterson, who represents North Shropshire, will face a fresh vote on his recommended suspension from the Commons for 30 sitting days but were unable to say when it would take place.
Tory MP Angela Richardson, who was sacked as a parliamentary private secretary to Cabinet minister Michael Gove after she abstained in Wednesday’s vote, said she was “pleased to be reappointed” after the U-turn.
Pleased to be reappointed to my role as PPS to Michael Gove. Busy department and work to get on with. #LevellingUp
— Angela Richardson MP (@AJRichardsonMP) November 4, 2021
Mr Rees-Mogg’s announcement to MPs came as an ethics adviser to the Prime Minister described Wednesday’s votes as a “very serious and damaging moment for Parliament”.
Lord Evans, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said plans for a Tory-led review into the disciplinary process for MPs as being “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”.
The Commons Leader recognised a “certain amount of controversy” had been created by the move and that standards must be reformed on a cross-party basis, which he acknowledged “that is clearly not the case” with the Government’s proposals.
“While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or apply retrospectively,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.
“I fear last night’s debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken.
“Therefore I and others will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases. We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.”
Mr Rees-Mogg did not make clear what will happen to the Paterson case, after the Government avoided a vote on his six-week suspension on Wednesday.
He did not directly answer a request from Chris Bryant, the chair of the Standards Committee that approved the report on for Mr Paterson, for Commons time next week to deal with the case.
The Government ordered Conservative MPs to back the controversial plans on Wednesday, but they were quickly thrown into disarray when Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems vowed to boycott what deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner called the “corrupt committee”.
Mark Harper, who was one of 13 Tories to rebel to vote against the plans, said the affair was “one of the most unedifying episodes” he has seen during his 16 years in Parliament.
“My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this,” the former chief whip said. “This must not happen again.”
Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire urged MPs to uphold the sanctions against Mr Paterson.
“Last night, they voted to allow corruption to take place unimpeded at the heart of British politics,” the Labour MP said.
“Any other result will allow Boris Johnson to create one rule for Tory MPs, another for everyone else.”
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has approved an application for a three-hour emergency debate on the standards system for MPs to take place on Monday.
Shortly before Mr Rees-Mogg’s climbdown, Lord Evans issued extraordinary criticism of the plans.
The former MI5 chief told an Institute for Government event: “It cannot be right to propose an overhaul of the entire regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions in a very serious case of paid lobbying by an MP.
“And it cannot be right to propose that the standards system in the House of Commons should be reviewed by a select committee chaired by a member of the ruling party and with a majority of members from that same party.
“This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.
“The political system in this country does not belong to one party or even to one Government, it is a common good that we have all inherited from our forebears and that we all have a responsibility to preserve and to improve.”
Lord Evans went on to suggest Mr Johnson and others may have fallen foul of the Nolan principles on public life, which are contained within the ministerial code.
“The seven principles of public life that all governments have espoused for over 25 years require that ministers and MPs should show leadership in upholding ethical standards in public life,” he said.
“I find it hard to see how yesterday’s actions in any way meet that test.”
Meanwhile, ministers were accused of trying to “bully” the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone, who carried out the investigation into Mr Paterson, into resignation after the Business Secretary suggested she should consider her position.
Just hours before the U-turn, Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: “I think it’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, and we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process, but it’s up to the commissioner to decide her position.”
Pushed on what he meant by “decide her position”, Mr Kwarteng said: “It’s up to her to do that. I mean, it’s up to anyone where they’ve made a judgment and people have sought to change that, to consider their position, that’s a natural thing, but I’m not saying she should resign.”
Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire called for the Prime Minister to “immediately distance himself from these latest attempts to poison British politics”.
“Having already ripped up the rules policing MPs’ behaviour to protect one of their own, it is appalling that this corrupt Government is now trying to bully the standards commissioner out of her job,” the Labour MP added.
Mr Kwarteng said that the Government’s decision to order its MPs to change the rules to spare a colleague did not look “sleazy” as he rejected the mounting criticism.
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain accused the Tories of “governing like the mafia” by “targeting those who uphold the rules rather than those who break them”.
“These shameful attempts to drag the standards commissioner through the mud have to be called out for what they truly are – an attack on our democracy,” she added.
It was not just opposition MPs who were outraged by the move, with dozens of Tories abstaining and 13 rebelling against orders to vote for a new committee led by former minister John Whittingdale, which would re-examine Mr Paterson’s case and whether a new standards system is needed.