“Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, said at the start of his speech.
He proceeded to contend that “the basic principles of natural justice” were broken when a defendant was given no proper right of appeal.
He was not there to defend Owen Paterson, who sat stony-faced on the Conservative benches, but to uphold the proposal in Andrea Leadsom’s amendment for a new committee which would look into how, in cases such as Paterson’s where an MP has been censured, the right of appeal can be upheld.
Rees-Mogg ended by saying that “the system must provide justice tempered by mercy”, and pointed out that Paterson has already suffered terribly: “the suicide of his wife is a greater punishment than any House of Commons committee could inflict”.
In the course of his speech, Rees-Mogg took numerous interventions, including many from Opposition members who accused the Conservatives of rallying round to defend one of their mates.
Caroline Lucas, for the Greens, was one who of those who said that was how the whole thing would look to members of the public. Rees-Mogg replied that “sometimes to do the right thing one has to accept a degree of opprobrium”.
Thangam Debbonaire, the Shadow Leader of the House, accused the supporters of the amendment of seeking to “turn the clock back before 1695”, when rules forbidding paid advocacy – the offence of which Paterson is accused – were first introduced.
She argued that “just changing the system when someone doesn’t like a result is not acceptable”.
Pete Wishart, for the SNP, said the supporters of the amendment were just trying to “turn back the clock to the worst excesses of 1990s Tory sleaze”.
He admitted this would suit the SNP. One could see that Wishart himself, along with many others who condemned the amendment, was longing for the Tories to live down to the low opinion which so many on the Left have of them.
Leadsom insisted her amendment was “not about letting anyone off”, but Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) said it “looks like we’re moving the goalposts”, so he could not vote for it.
Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda), who chairs the Committee on Standards, expressed sympathy with Paterson but strongly defended the sentence of 30 days’ suspension passed on him, and said “retrospective legislation to favour or damage an individual is immoral”.
The Leadsom amendment was passed by 250 votes to 232, which meant over 100 Tory MPs had either abstained, or in 13 cases had voted against it.
What an uneasy afternoon this was, which was as it should be, for it ought not to be easy to wreck a duly elected MP’s reputation and career, and the responsibility for doing so must ultimately rest with the House of Commons itself.