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Government forced into extraordinary climbdown over parliamentary standards system

In the latest u-turn from the government, Boris Johnson has relented to pressure from the Daily Mail over how MPs are policed.

Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson (right) leaving Downing Street, London after attending a meeting. Photograph: PA.

The government has dropped its controversial plans to overhaul the parliamentary standards system in an extraordinary climbdown that followed accusations of sleaze and a furious backlash across the board — even from the government-supporting Daily Mail.

Less than 24 hours after Wednesday’s vote overturning former minister Owen Paterson’s suspension for paid lobbying, commons leader Jacob-Rees Mogg signalled a U-turn when he told parliament that the individual case had mistakenly been confused with parliamentary standards reform.

Dozens of Conservative MPs had rebelled against a three-line whip during the narrow vote to protect Paterson from a 30-day suspension and to rewrite the rules on sanctioning errant MPs. 

The issue created a furore in parliament and demonstrated a worrying new addition to the many examples of the government acting with impunity in the face of rules and laws. The reaction has been unforgiving.

“Shameless MPs Sink Back Into Sleaze” shrieked the headline from a disapproving Daily Mail. Conservative constituents flooded MPs’ inboxes with complaints, and veteran MP Peter Bone’s office was vandalised in protest.

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of corruption, while at PMQs Angela Rayner accused Boris Johnson’s government of “wallowing in sleaze”

Crossbench peer Lord Evans, chair of the committee on Standards in Public Life, laid into the government for trying to tear up the independent system to combat sleaze, which he called an extraordinary proposal that was “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.” 

“The government does not own the country’s political system,” he said.

Johnson’s erstwhile ally Dominic Cummings also weighed in, suggesting the whole vote was a wheeze to remove Kathryn Stone from her role as the parliamentary commissioner for standards ahead of a further potential investigation into the funding for Johnson’s expensive Downing Street redecoration.

“Yesterday was really about the PM & his own lies re illegal £ not OP.”

Paterson, whose hubristic post-vote interviews are believed to have contributed to the government volte-face, had questioned Stone’s future in the role, as had Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

The standards committee had been about to decide whether to go ahead with a fourth investigation in three years against Johnson, this time over the funding of his fabled “gold wallpaper” refit. Several Conservative MPs, including Mark Francios and Iain Duncan Smith, have previously been sanctioned over standards, and Johnson has been investigated several times – including over his Caribbean holiday in 2019.

Also in the wings were potential inquiries about lobbying related to the awarding of Covid contracts.

MPs are now expected to vote on a new motion on sanctioning Paterson, which should pass. He was originally found guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying standards for using his position to benefit two firms paying him £100,000 between them as a consultant. While there has been sympathy for him following his wife’s suicide last year, many Conservatives were queasy about the vote.

Plans for a new Conservative-led standards commission appears to be in disarray after opposition MPs refused to take part. Rees-Mogg talked of the need for cross-party cooperation when reforming the standards process.

Labour has had a good crisis, with Rayner’s PMQ attacks hitting the mark and Commons standards committee chair Chris Bryant receiving fulsome praise for his strong speech in parliament defending the decision against Paterson.

An angry Labour leader Keir Starmer, in some of his harshest words yet, said that protecting Paterson and failing to kick out Rob Roberts, a Conservative MP found guilty of harassment, was corrupt.

But it’s clear that the government’s initial judgement that the vote wouldn’t resonate with the general public was wrong.

The fact that the vote was bulldozed through anyway despite early doubts and criticism highlights that the big issue isn’t even about the merits of this particular case, but the ever developing pattern of a government ignoring or changing rules and laws that get in their way — and the increasingly brazen way this is done.

These include many incidents from rejecting findings over Priti Patel’s bullying to attempts to disregard international laws and treaties – behaviour akin to that in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey.

As Angela Rayner warned Johnson:  “He should learn the lessons that if you keep cheating the public, it catches up with you in the end.”

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