At the heart of the low politics of the Paterson controversy – to leave the issues of high principle aside for a moment – is the prospect of a recall petition and a by-election in his North Shropshire seat.
My take on the row earlier this week was that the Standards Committee’s verdict was contestable, that its proposed sentence was unfair, and that the punishment of a potential petition and election was disproportionate.
It followed that the Commons should address the core issue: namely, a recall procedure that is at once too lax, because constituents’ right to trigger it is too constricted, and too tight, because the threshold for doing so is too low.
“If, say, a quarter or a third of Paterson’s constituents want to recall him, they should have the right to trigger a ballot, regardless of what a Parliamentary committee may rule. And the same should apply to every other MP,” I wrote.
Had the Government proposed a package to the chamber whereby the right to recall be extended at the same as its standards system be reformed, it might just have pulled off a successful political manoeuvre.
Probably not – since MPs would be unlikely to back a more permissive recall trigger, even if balanced by a higher threshold. But the Government would at least have had more political cover than it has this evening.
The sum of yesterday’s Commons debate and vote, whereby it moved to shield a Tory MP accused of corruption without offering voters any new safeguards against it, is that the Conservative Party is now pinned down by hostile fire in a cul-de-sac of its own creation.
What was meant to be an escape route – the creation of a new Select Committee that would consider Paterson’s individual case while also reviewing the whole standards system – risks becoming a Tory killing ground with no exit.
For Keir Starmer, the opportunity to revive the charge of “Tory sleaze” and get on the front foot is too glittering an opportunity to resist. The other Opposition parties will gleefully pile in.
Had the Government proposed an amendment to today’s motion to suspend Paterson from the Commons for, say, five days, MPs would doubtless have voted for it, there would have been no risk of a by-election…and the public would scarcely have noticed.
Fat chance of that now. To date, Paterson has had a reasonable press, mostly because of the terrible suicide of his wife, Rose. I’m sorry to say that this will now change.
For by postponing a decision on his case, the whipped ranks of the Conservative Parliamentary Party have left Paterson exposed. His agony will be dragged out for even longer. He hangs exposed as a poster boy for “Tory sleaze”, however unfairly.
The new Conservative-only committee thus faces a Catch-22. If it proposes a suspension for Paterson that might trigger a by-election, what on earth was the point of today’s political manoeuvres?
If it doesn’t, I’m afraid that a five-day sentence, say, will no longer cut the mustard. The charge today in the Commons was that the Government was shielding corruption.
Andrea Leadsom struggled for an answer, in moving her Government-backed amendment, to the question: why now? If the standards system needs reform, why not first complete the business on Paterson before turning to a wider review?
Aaron Bell cut to the chase: “it looks like we are moving the goalposts.” One thing is certain: if Labour won’t co-operate with the Government over an individual case – Paterson’s – there’s not a cat in hell’s chance that it will do so over reforming the entire system.
That might not matter had the Government won today’s vote with its majority of roughly 80 or thereabouts. But it only made it over the line by the slender majority of 18.
Never mind for the moment whether Tory critics of Paterson, such as Peter Bottomley, were right or wrong in the view that they expressed today. The fact is that a party under fire must hang together if it is to survive assault.
Thirteen rebels and a mass of absentions is a revolt in the ranks. More will join them as e-mails and tweets from constituents begin to come in. Angela Richardson didn’t back the Government and has lost her PPS post.
Had the Government’s majority been bigger, Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who investigated Paterson, would most likely have quit. The position of the Standards Committee and its Chairman, Chris Bryant, would have been impossible.
As it is, Bryant will now hang on in there. Yesterday was his first substantial opportunity to reply to the charges of the committee’s critics. The silence in which he was heard was evidence that he took it.
It may just be, as I write in today’s Times, that Labour’s attack on “Tory sleaze” fails to cut through. After all, it has to date – for all its assaults on Covid contracts and the treatment of Rob Roberts and David Cameron over Greensill.
But the risk for the Government is that the Paterson row drags on, with the new committee unable to operate, any proposals from it doomed before they emerge, and Labour exploiting every Commons device it can find to keep punching the Paterson bruise.
He continues to make his own case – namely, that his paid advocacy was justified under the rules by whistle-blowing, that neither he nor his clients have gained, and that the safety of consumers in Northern Ireland has been enhanced: and as I’ve written before, it has merit.
Nonetheless, he may now find himself to be like a man shouting against the wind – in this case, a public one of ridicule, ignorance, hatred and contempt. We may be in Barnard Castle territory.
No politican ever had a cannier sense of his own self-preservation than Boris Johnson. The “greased albino piglet” has wriggled out of many a tight spot. It is puzzling that he has got himself into this one – or might be, had he not had his own run-ins with the Commissioner.
There is now no good option for the Prime Minister. The choice is between backing any reform plan advanced by the new Tory-only committee in a Commons vote, or not doing so for fear of that slender majority of 18 vanishing altogether.
Which do you really think is more likely? It may now be that the new committee first finds a means of proposing a suspension for Paterson of less than ten sitting days – a verdict, incidentally, that he and his supporters will resist…
…Before putting its collective hand up, and conceding that there is “not sufficient support in the House for the necessary reforms at this time”. And Bryant’s committee then proposes a few small changes itself: a touch here, a tweak there.
The Commons chamber is like a sea. It has its own times and tides. Sometimes, the skies can seem clear. And suddenly a storm can appear out of nothing.
For what it’s worth, my judgement is that the weather shifted against the Government in the chamber today. It may not or may not have deserved to lose the argument. But it did so: hence the wounding inadequacy of its majority when the vote came.
The most likely course of events is that Johnson now tries to change the subject. Then sniffs the breeze over the next day or so. If the row drags on for a few days, let alone gets noisier, he will fall back from that dead end. And all the while, Paterson will fight on.