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PM scores spectacular ‘Owen’ goal

Johnson’s personal sleaze shouldn’t distract from wider institutional Tory corruption

By Aidan Bridgeman

Image courtesy of Policy Exchange via Flickr

In recent weeks, yet another UK Government scandal has arisen: Tory MP Owen Paterson accused of breaking the parliamentary code of conduct. In what should be a fairly straightforward case, the man at the top, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, has pulled out all the stops to cover up this investigation, its findings and the action it should warrant. Then, rather predictably, been backed into another embarrassing U-turn.

It started in 2019 when it surfaced that Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, had been acting as a paid consultant for two companies—lobbying for both.

There were three main findings from an investigation opened into Paterson. Namely, that he had broke the parliamentary code of conduct on paid advocacy, not declared his financial interests and, lastly, had misused his parliamentary office, influence and position.

Somehow, in the face of all the evidence, Paterson tried to claim that he was exempt from the allegations made against him; he claimed that his paid lobbying attempts were serious matters that had to be heard and seen to. Of course, that’s been tossed out as a load of lies. The committee shot that down pretty fast.

On the back of these findings a motion has been put to the House of Commons to suspend Paterson for 30 days—not an arbitrary length of time, mind you. That is just enough to allow, potentially, for a by-election to be held in his seat. The motion to suspend Paterson for 30 days was suggested by the Committee on Standards, an independence committee.

It should be uncontroversial. But, of course, the Tories have not made it easy. They’ve put up fight after fight. Their attempt this time round was to include in the motion an amendment (motioned by Andrea Leadsom and Julian Lewis, backed by Boris Johnson) to essentially overrule it in not suspending Paterson on ‘passionate grounds’ (his wife has died during the investigation), and calling for an overhaul of the select committee investigation system. Conveniently, however, the suggested overhaul would directly affect the Paterson case and place on the seats of that committee enough Conservative members to form a majority—and to also be headed by Conservative MP John Whittingdale. How convenient.

This is a disgusting attempt to overrule an independent body's findings into a case of clear corruption. Not only is it shameless to suggest Paterson should not be suspended because of the death of his wife, it’s shameless to have the guts to suggest the committee be overhauled with a majority of members that would obviously vote to not give him the sack! With the backing of the PM himself, the motion and the amendments with it were accepted.

Later, Jacob Rees-Mogg announced to parliament a U-turn of the motion. Owen Paterson also resigned. This only happened after a media frenzy, and because of pressure put on the Prime Minister by the opinion polls. When voting to undo the motion, Tory MPs felt ashamed—many not even wanting to vote for the U-turn. Indeed, they should be ashamed. Should they receive any sympathy? Not a chance.

Johnson, as noted, has received a lot of slack for this. And rightly so. However, his personal sleaze and misjudgment—which seems to be happening more and more—should not be the main focus here. The public, and the media alike, need to question what kind of a system it is that we live in anyway where MPs can have lavish second jobs and act on behalf of lobbying firms. Tory MPs and past Prime Ministers have said that this is all a regular part of democracy in function, but what has happened recently is anything but normal. In the UK today, corruption is everyday business and insider politics rule the game. This time it was uncovered. This time.


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