Corrupt Conservatives?: Owen Paterson resigns amid lobbying scandal

December 5, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Owen Paterson, a former Conservative MP, has resigned following a report by the Independent Standards Commission which found he had broken lobbying rules.

What does this mean?

The investigation led by Kathryn Stone revealed Paterson had breached lobbying rules on behalf of Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, and Lynn’s Country Foods, who specialise in processing and distributing meat products. The report documented over 16 occasions where Paterson used his parliamentary office for business meetings with clients, whilst also making seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of the two companies. Whilst lobbying rules enable MPs to be employed by other businesses whilst in office, this lobbying regulation does not permit paid advocacy. Therefore, in receiving a £100,000 salary from the two companies, Paterson was in clear breach of lobbying regulation.

Boris Johnson added more fuel to the fire by using his position as Prime Minister to protect Paterson in ordering MPs to challenge the Commission’s ruling. However, these demands seem to have fallen on deaf ears, as 109 conservatives abstained from the vote on overturning the Commission’s ruling – a significant amount by party standards. Johnson then controversially proposed a rehaul of the standards process which led to public outcry. Given the party’s clear reluctance to follow their leader, coupled with significant public backlash, Paterson resigned on Tuesday 4 November.

What's the big picture effect?

Johnson’s ploy to acquit Paterson under the guise of reforming the Standards Commission procedure has revealed an underhanded Tory ethos. John Major, the former Conservative Prime Minister, described the Government as “politically corrupt”. Indeed, this manoeuvre has cost the Conservative Party five points in the polls, powerfully symbolising the public’s contempt of the debacle. Whilst polls are never the most reliable indicators of public opinion, such a drastic drop in party confidence will undoubtedly harm the Conservatives’ chances of retaining power in the next election. This outcome looks particularly probable if Johnson continues to stand by disgraced MPs such as Matt Hancock and Paterson in spite of their clear wrongdoing.  

However, the effects of Johnson’s actions may be felt closer to home and sooner than expected. The Prime Minister’s rather draconian actions in ordering MPs to vote in favour of Paterson, despite their own views, has bruised MP relations within 10 Downing Street. This now tenuous relationship may hinder the Cabinet’s ability to get bills through Parliament as reluctant MPs may refuse to follow the party’s demands. If they do not have the full support of the Conservative Party, the Cabinet risks becoming politically stalled which may prove to be particularly costly at a time where effective government is needed to resolve existential issues like climate change.

Despite the above, there may be some merit in Johnson’s reform plans. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, reaffirmed the need for investigative processes to be“fair” in line with natural justice. Such proposals are made against the backdrop of Paterson’s own comments who believed the investigation “offend[ed] the basic standards of procedural fairness”, and contributed to his wife’s suicide. Therefore, this affair may have far reaching implications and push Parliament to reconsider the operation of the Independent Standards Commission. Whilst such a view is credible in the long-term, it is likely that Johnson and the Conservative Party will refrain from such actions in the interim in order to rehabilitate their image. 

On the whole, Owen Paterson has been forced to resign following the Independent Standards Commission’s finding of wrongdoing in regards to lobbying. Whilst this scandal has cost the Conservative Party political favour in the polls, a more pressing concern will be the Prime Minister’s now strained relationship with fellow Tory MPs. Does Boris Johnson have the charisma to bring the Conservative party back from the brink, or will Paterson be the first domino in the party’s fall in May 2024?

Report written by Luke Cuthbert

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