Ministers U-turn on standards overhaul amid outrage over Owen Paterson case

Owen Paterson avoided an immediate suspension after his Tory colleagues voted to reject the recommended punishment. Credit: Parliament TV

Ministers have performed a dramatic U-turn on their plan to overhaul the Commons standards watchdog amid public outrage after Tory MPs voted to let their colleague Owen Paterson escape punishment for "egregious" lobbying.

Mr Paterson was found by the Commons Standards Committee to have repeatedly broken lobbying rules by advocating for two companies which were paying him over £100,000 a year - but instead of accepting a 30-day suspension, some of his Tory colleagues decided the process was unfair and rejected his recommended punishment.

But after apparently noting the public's furious reaction - and seeing newspaper front pages castigate Tory MPs - the government decided it was time to climbdown.

Boris Johnson's spokesperson explained the prime minister changed his mind after acknowledging the "strength of feeling" on the issue and accepted he could not press ahead with a new standards system without cross-party agreement.

There will be a fresh vote on Mr Paterson's suspension "as soon as possible", the spokesman said and MPs will not be whipped into giving their colleague support.

It is understood the vote could take place as soon as Tuesday, after an emergency debate on MPs' standards set to be held on Monday.

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said the vote on overhauling the standards system and preventing the immediate suspension of former minister Mr Paterson had "created a certain amount of controversy".

He said he would seek "cross-party" changes to the system after Labour and other opposition parties refused to take part in a "corrupt committee".

The minister suggested any changes may not "apply retrospectively" after the government came under intense criticism for blocking Owen Paterson's immediate suspension.

The chairman of the Standards Committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant, said there should be a "straightforward" vote on Monday to suspend Mr Paterson.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said move to "rip the whole system" up in a bid to protect Mr Paterson showed the government is "corrupt".

He said: "It's no wonder that this morning they're waking up and asking themselves what on Earth they've done - because what they've done is corrupt."

He added: "There's no point shillyshallying around pretending its something else, it's corruption and this time it's corruption from the top, from the prime minister down."

Mr Rees-Mogg's announcement to MPs came as an ethics adviser to Prime Minister Johnson 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 standards must be reformed on a cross-party basis as 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."

The bid to review the Common's Standards Committee was fiercely contested by opposition MPs, who said it amounted to Tory MPs "marking their own homework" by rejecting an outcome they did not like.

But after the government issued a three-line whip ordering Tory MPs to reject the suspension and back the amendment seeking to overhaul the system, it was unlikely that the opposition could ever win.

A small number of Tories did reject the amendment, including Aaron Bell, who said he opposed it because it looked "like we're moving the goalposts".

Others among the 13 Tories to oppose it were Jackie Doyle-Price, Richard Fuller, Kate Griffiths, Mark Harper, Simon Hoare, Kevin Hollinrake, Nigel Mills, Jill Mortimer, Holly Mumby-Croft, Matthew Offord, John Stevenson, and William Wragg.

A dozens of Tories abstained from the vote including Michael Gove's Parliamentary private secretary (PPS) Angela Richardson, who was sacked for doing so.

Following the government's U-turn she was reinstated to her role, demonstrating just how far Downing Street's position has moved since MPs were whipped into protecting Mr Paterson.

Conservative former chief whip Mr Harper said the whipping of Tory MPs to back the amendment was "unedifying".

He said: "This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament. My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this. This must not happen again."

Mr Paterson released a statement following the vote, thanking his colleagues for "ensuring that fundamental changes will be made to internal Parliamentary systems of justice".

"All I have ever asked is to have the opportunity to make my case through a fair process," he said, "the decision today in Parliament means that I will now have that opportunity".

He added: "I hope that no other MP will ever again be subject to this shockingly inadequate process."

'I hope no other MP goes through the horrors that I and my family have been through for the last two years, because this is a very unjust system,' says Owen Paterson

The investigation into his conduct found that between November 2016 and November 2017 Mr Paterson made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) relating to Randox - a clinical diagnostics company - and antibiotics in milk in breach of the ban on paid advocacy.

He was also found to have made four approaches to ministers at the Department for International Development relating to the company and blood testing technology between October 2016 and January 2017.

And Mr Paterson was found to have made seven approaches to the FSA between November 2017 and July 2018 relating to Lynn's Country Foods.

The former Northern Ireland secretary says he was raising "very serious issues" in his lobbying, adding that "milk in supermarkets was found to contain an antibiotic residue" and thanks to him, products are "safer than before".

But Mr Bryant said if Mr Paterson was really concerned about the issues, he could have raised them in a public forum, rather than privately with ministers.

"He did the one thing he was banned from doing - lobby ministers in a way that conferred direct benefit on paying clients. That is forbidden. It is a corrupt practice."