Senior Tories were questioning Boris Johnson’s judgment last night after he was forced to abandon efforts to save a former minister who broke lobbying rules.
In a humiliating U-turn, the Prime Minister dropped a bid to prevent Owen Paterson being suspended from Parliament for lobbying on behalf of two firms which paid him more than £500,000.
The former Cabinet minister resigned hours later, saying he wanted to leave behind the ‘cruel world of politics’.
His departure capped a deeply damaging 24 hours in which Mr Johnson first ordered Tory MPs to ram through plans to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules, before abandoning the idea in the face of a public outcry.
Senior Conservatives last night said the episode raised serious questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment – and had left the whole party tainted by sleaze.
Tory Chief Whip Mark Spencer was also under fire, with some Tories saying he should resign over the debacle.
One Cabinet minister said Mr Johnson should have made Mr Paterson ‘turn up and accept his punishment’ rather than put the full might of the Government machine behind him.
Mr Johnson first ordered Tory MPs to ram through plans to tear up Parliament’s anti-sleaze rules to save Paterson's skin, before abandoning the idea in the face of a public outcry.
Another senior minister said: ‘This was completely avoidable. The problem with Boris is he packs his Cabinet with second-rate people, meaning there is no one to tell him he should take a different course.’ The minister added: ‘It all just looks like we’re back to the 1990s – MPs getting together to support their friends.’
Meanwhile, former chief whip Mark Harper declared: ‘This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as an MP.’
The Prime Minister’s own ethics adviser made a devastating intervention over Downing Street’s handling of the Owen Paterson case yesterday, warning that Britain could ‘slip into being a corrupt country’.
Ex-MI5 chief Lord Evans, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, condemned the Government’s plans to overhaul the standards system for MPs as being ‘deeply at odds’ with democracy.
In a blistering attack, widely seen as critical in the decision to do a U-turn, he said creating a committee to review Mr Paterson’s case would be an ‘extraordinarily inappropriate way to look at standards’.
Lord Evans told an Institute for Government event yesterday: ‘Nobody should be able to make their judgments on their own case.
‘We should not take for granted the fact that this country has relatively low levels of corruption. We could slip into being a corrupt country and that’s why we need to be vigilant around these issues. It’s also quite possible we could slip in terms of international perceptions of us.’
The furious backlash came as:
÷ The PM was said to have been dismayed by an unrepentant interview given by Mr Paterson in the wake of Wednesday night’s controversial vote;
÷ But Mr Johnson fuelled speculation Mr Paterson could be handed a peerage in future by issuing a warm tribute to him, although No 10 said there had been ‘no discussion’ of a seat in the Lords;
÷ The Chief Whip was forced to reinstate Tory MP Angela Richardson as a parliamentary aide to Michael Gove just hours after sacking her for refusing to back the Government in the row;
÷ Conservative Central Office was preparing for a by-election in Mr Paterson’s North Shropshire constituency where he had a majority of almost 23,000;
÷ The grassroots Tory website Conservative Home warned the scandal was in danger of entering ‘Barnard Castle territory’ [the Dominic Cummings lockdown-busting row] in terms of reputational damage to the Government;
÷ Plans to reform Parliament’s standards system were kicked into the long grass, with the Labour Party saying the idea was ‘dead in the water;
÷ Downing Street denied that Mr Johnson wanted to undermine the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who has previously reprimanded him for wrongdoing;
÷ Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was rebuked by the Speaker for suggesting the standards commissioner should resign;
÷ Tory MP Peter Bone said his constituency office had been vandalised after voting to spare Mr Paterson, with the words ‘Tory sleaze’ sprayed on the walls.
The Chief Whip was last night facing the wrath of MPs over heavy-handed threats used to force through measures that were abandoned only hours later.
One Tory said: ‘Obviously there is anger at the PM, but there is a real feeling the Chief should be considering his position. He laid down a three-line whip, threatened people with having their funding removed, sacked someone and had to reinstate her – all for a stupid vote that had to be abandoned the next day.’ But No 10 yesterday insisted the PM retains ‘full confidence’ in Mr Spencer.
Tory Chief Whip Mark Spencer (R) is also under fire, with some Tories saying he should resign over the debacle concerning Owen Paterson
Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said many MPs defending ‘very narrow’ majorities were furious at being ‘dragged into this whole sleaze agenda’.
In the wake of Wednesday night’s vote Mr Paterson had given an unrepentant interview in which he said he ‘wouldn’t hesitate’ to repeat his actions.
But last night, Mr Johnson said he was ‘very sad’ to be losing Mr Paterson, adding: ‘He has had a distinguished career, serving in two cabinet positions, and above all he has been a voice for freedom – for free markets and free trade and free societies – and he was an early and powerful champion of Brexit.’A political fiasco that started over claret and pheasant at the garrick... and ended in humiliation
By ANDREW PIERCE FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Tuesday night at the Garrick, the favoured London watering hole since 1831 of the illustrious denizens of the media, legal, theatrical and political world.
And there, holding court in boisterous fashion was Boris Johnson, totally at ease in the wood-panelled splendour of the private gentlemen’s club, amongst old friends from his days as a journalist.
Boris had arrived back in the capital just hours earlier, having flown in by chartered jet from Glasgow where he has been hosting the world’s statesmen and women at Cop26, while also delivering doomsday predictions about climate change.
Quite how he squared that flight with his final utterances at the UN beanfeast, when he urged the world to stop ‘quilting the earth in an invisible and suffocating blanket of CO2’, is not known. But then Boris had a dinner date and he wasn’t going to miss it.
In the Milne Room, beneath a portrait of AA Milne – the creator of Winnie The Pooh who bequeathed a portion of the rights to his books to the Garrick – Boris joined 30 former leader writers (including three women who are permitted as guests at the club but not as members) from The Daily Telegraph.
This is the newspaper, of course, where Boris made his name as a young reporter who became the scourge of Brussels and EU lunacy, and which later paid him a princely £250,000 a year for a weekly column until he entered the Cabinet.
The group tucked into fish cakes and pheasant followed by chocolate souffle at £85 a head, all washed down with a piquant club Claret.
Owen Paterson, who was suspended from Parliament for lobbying on behalf of two firms which paid him more than £500,000, has resigned from the 'cruel world of politics'
Having worked the room extensively before dinner, Boris – who resigned his membership of the Garrick a decade ago – was now locked in conversation with his former editor Charles Moore, who was sitting opposite him at the long dining table.
I am told that Owen Paterson’s name was mentioned – and that is no surprise. Moore, recently elevated to the House of Lords, is a friend of 45 years’ standing of Paterson and his late wife Rose (who committed suicide last year), from their time at Cambridge together.
Moore has argued in The Telegraph that Paterson, a fellow Brexiteer, had been unfairly ‘hounded’ by the Parliamentary commissioner Kathryn Stone, who had found he had improperly lobbied on behalf of two firms from whom he had received a combined annual remuneration of more than £100,000. Stone, Moore noted, had absolutely ‘no legal training and it showed’.
Later, Boris, who stayed for almost two hours, made a typically rumbustious speech extolling the virtues of his old newspaper.
The next day he ordered Tory MPs to vote down a 30-day suspension against Paterson that was proposed by the 14-strong, cross-party Commons standards committee, who after their own investigation endorsed Stone’s findings.
The emergence of the Garrick dinner has left many Tory MPs feeling distinctly queasy and deeply suspicious, with one telling me: ‘It feels like this was all stitched up over the port and stilton