Boris Johnson has executed a major U-turn over his attempt to rewrite the standards system at Westminster and reprieve a Tory MP accused of “egregious” breaches of the rules, amid warnings that Britain risked becoming “a corrupt country”.
After 24 hours of cross-party criticism, Johnson abandoned plans to set up a Tory-dominated committee to overhaul the system, while appearing to leave former Tory cabinet minister Owen Paterson to face his fate.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, stunned MPs on Thursday by announcing that he would start cross-party talks to try to end the toxic row at Westminster over the standards system.
Meanwhile Rees-Mogg said that any new system — including a possible appeals regime — should not apply retrospectively to the case of Paterson, who was found to have broken the rules by “repeatedly” acting as a paid advocate for two companies, which paid him £100,000 a year.
Rees-Mogg said many MPs felt there should be a new appeals system, but added: “There is a strong feeling it should not be based on a single case or applied retrospectively.”
He said that “the link needs to be broken” between the Paterson case and any future reforms to the system. Paterson now faces a 30-day suspension from the Commons and a possible recall motion by his constituents: that could trigger a by-election.
A controversial new committee, to be chaired by former Tory cabinet minister John Whittingdale, to recommend reforms has been put on hold after Labour and the SNP said they would boycott it. Rees-Mogg said that any reforms could only be agreed on a cross-party basis.
The sharp retreat by Johnson will infuriate Tory MPs, many of whom reluctantly voted to ditch the old system and reprieve Paterson under direct orders from Downing Street.
Peter Bone, a Tory MP, said his office had been vandalised overnight because of the vote. Many will now be tarnished by the vote and are already being targeted by opposition parties for having voted for “sleaze”.
Johnson and Tory MPs also faced heavy media criticism, including from Conservative-supporting papers.
Earlier, Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and a former head of the domestic security service MI5, described the move as “a very serious and damaging moment for parliament and for public standards in this country”.
Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary standards commissioner, concluded in a report last month that Paterson had “repeatedly” used his role as an MP to “benefit” two companies — medical diagnostics group Randox and meat processor Lynn’s Country Foods — for which he was a paid consultant. She recommended a 30-day suspension.
The decision was upheld unanimously by the Commons standards committee, which includes three Tory MPs.
Instead of supporting the sanctions against Paterson on Wednesday, the prime minister ordered Tory MPs to back a move in the House of Commons by backbench Tory MPs to overhaul the body that enforces standards, offering Paterson a reprieve and leaving the system in chaos.
Paterson has denied any wrongdoing, argued he was not given a fair hearing and said he would act in the same way again.
Chris Bryant, chair of the Commons standards committee, described the move as a “perversion of justice”, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That is not what we do in this country, it’s what they do in Russia when a friend or a foe is suddenly under the cosh in the courts.”
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