Government 'regrets its mistakes' over handling of Paterson corruption claims

The government was hoping the Owen Paterson affair could be swept away quickly but that is not looking likely, Romilly Weeks reports

The government has said it "regrets" the "mistake" it made over the handling of the Owen Paterson scandal during a parliamentary debate over allegations of corruption levelled against the prime minister.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and opposition MPs slammed Boris Johnson for failing to turn up to the debate on standards after he directed members of his party to support a colleague who had been found guilty of breaching parliamentary lobbying standards.

During an emergency debate granted to discuss the crisis, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay said he and his colleagues on the government frontbench “regret” the “mistake” they made last week over the issue of standards.Sir Keir said a message needed to be sent by MPs to Boris Johnson, telling the Commons: “Enough is enough. We will not stand by while he trashes our democracy.”

The government has come under harsh criticism for its handling of the crisis Credit: PA

Referring to Owen Paterson's case at the centre of the scandal, he said: “The findings were clear: an egregious case of paid advocacy. He took money to lobby ministers. That is against the rules, as it is in any functioning democracy, and it’s corrupt.”He added: "Last week the Prime Minister damaged himself and, despite the bravery of some members opposite, he damaged his party, but most importantly he damaged our democracy.”

During the debate, the opposition benches were almost completely full but the government's benches had less than 40 Conservative MPs present.

Opposition MPs also criticised Jacob Rees Mogg for not acting on behalf of the government when parliamentary standards come under his remit as the leader of the House of Commons.

He was instead sat next to Mr Barclay who was providing the government's response.

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

Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain, who secured the debate, compared the actions of parliament last week to the Russian Duma or the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

She said: “When, in the eyes of the public, we are tainted by allegations of sleaze. The government’s actions last Wednesday have rightly been condemned across the board."

She added: "This is a prime minister who flew to Afghanistan to escape a vote on Heathrow when he was foreign secretary, and has driven to the North East to escape questions today.”Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs: “I granted this debate today because I thought it was essential to sort out the mess we’re in.He said any reform of the standards system must be done with cross-party support.

Alongside the debate, the government are also facing demands for a public inquiry into allegations of Tory sleaze following the Owen Paterson row.

The inquiry, which would have the power to summon witnesses and take evidence under oath, would examine not only the Paterson row but also the awarding of coronavirus contracts, whether Mr Johnson’s holidays in villas provided by friends were properly declared, and how the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat was funded.

The scandal exploded after Tory attempts to block an immediate 30-day suspension for Mr Paterson over an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.

Conservative MPs were ordered instead to back the creation of a Tory-led committee to look again at Mr Paterson’s case and the whole standards system.

But after a backlash, the government performed a U-turn and Mr Paterson subsequently quit as an MP, leaving what he called the “cruel world of politics”.

Sir Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister should: "Apologise to the country".

Ahead of the emergency debate, Sir Keir said the Prime Minister must publicly confirm that former Cabinet minister Mr Paterson will not be nominated for a peerage.

Downing Street sources have indicated there is no intention for Mr Paterson to be given a seat in the Upper Chamber.

The Liberal Democrats pushed for a change to Commons rules to prevent any MPs being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from voting on or proposing amendments to motions related to disciplinary issues.

Tory MPs, who have been contacted by furious constituents about the situation, remain angry at the handling of the Paterson case and relations have not been helped by Environment Secretary George Eustice’s claim that it was a “Westminster storm in a teacup”.

There have been accusations they were threatened with loss of funding for their constituencies if they broke the whip.

High Peak MP Robert Largan, one of the new generation of Tory MPs elected in 2019, criticised Mr Eustice’s attempt to downplay the row, telling Times Radio: “I don’t think it’s very helpful to say, ‘oh, it’s just a storm in a teacup’.

“In my view, this was something that we got badly wrong and they need to fix it.”