MPs are preparing to vote on an issue which never endears them to the public – their own standards and conduct.
Former cabinet minister Owen Paterson has insisted he was treated unfairly by the independent standards commissioner Kathryn Stone, who investigated him and ruled in a 160-page report that he had committed an “egregious” breach of the rules on paid advocacy.
Now, a vote on whether to carry out her recommendation to suspend him for 30 days – backed by a cross-party committee of MPs – has been turned into a test of strength for Number 10.
Instead of allowing MPs to vote as they wish, Conservatives are being urged by party whips to support an amendment which would delay his suspension, pending an overhaul of the entire system.
Ministers from Boris Johnson down support it, and newer Tory MPs will feel the pressure to back the government, or at least not vote against it.
Some have reservations. As one senior Tory put it to me, whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the Paterson case, it “looks awful” to appear to be changing the system to support a senior Conservative.
Many Tories believe that Mr Paterson – a former cabinet minister who has spoken powerfully about his wife’s suicide and his belief that it was in part as a result of the inquiry into his lobbying – did break the rules, even if he had not intended to.
One senior Tory said if he had admitted breaching rules, his colleagues would have approved a shorter suspension, which would not risk him losing his seat as an MP.
It is notable that the amendment proposed by former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, highly likely to be selected by the Speaker of the House, does not rule on Mr Paterson’s guilt or innocence – but the system itself.
One cabinet minister claimed MPs were concerned that the standards system, set up in 1995 after the “cash for questions” affair, was acting as “judge, jury and executioner” by not allowing Mr Paterson to appeal, and not calling witnesses he claims would have defended him.
If a vote is successful, it would change the standards system to one which consists of a committee with a Conservative majority ruling over MPs’ behaviour. Labour say this is deeply troubling, one source calling it “Trumpism on speed”.
Downing Street clearly has the confidence that, with their majority of over 80 MPs, it is a fight they can easily win.
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