Government extortion racket
Boris Johnson’s screeching U-turn over Owen Paterson brilliantly highlighted the endemic corruption in the government party, writes Eddie Ford
By now everybody is familiar with the Owen Paterson story. Last month, after a two-year investigation, the Tory MP for North Shropshire was found guilty of “egregious lobbying” by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone. The commissioner is in charge of regulating MPs’ “conduct and propriety”, and ensuring the disclosure of financial interests that “may be of relevance” to MPs’ work. In theory, paid advocacy on behalf of corporate interests is strictly forbidden.
As a serial offender, Paterson made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency and four to the Department for International Development in relation to Randox - a healthcare and toxicology company that in March of last year was awarded a £133 million contract to produce testing kits (at a cost of £49 each) during the coronavirus pandemic without any other firms being given the opportunity to bid for the work. Nothing dodgy there, nor the fact that a further £347 million contract was awarded to Randox six months later, again without other companies being able to bid. Paterson also made seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency relating to Lynn’s Country Foods, a Northern Ireland-based processor and distributor of sausages. By pure coincidence, Paterson used to be secretary of state for Northern Ireland. For his labours, Paterson was paid over £100,000 a year - on top of his MP’s annual salary of £81,932, plus full expenses. Not a bad living.
In the words of Kathryn Stone, the member for North Shropshire has “brought the house into disrepute" and “no previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests”. The commons select committee on standards recommended Paterson be suspended from the Commons for 30 sitting days. Hence a motion to carry out the recommendations of the committee was due to be voted on last week by parliament, which if approved would have meant that a recall petition would have been triggered in his constituency.
However, this is when the skulduggery began. An amendment to the motion was put forward by Tory backbencher Andrea ‘loathsome’ Leadsom to delay Paterson's suspension and set up a new select committee to investigate the disciplinary process for MPs - a totally unprecedented move, as everyone noted at the time. In other words, Boris Johnson was using his parliamentary majority to defend a friend by retrospectively rewriting the rules under which Paterson was convicted. Or, if you prefer sporting analogies, Johnson was trying to change both the rules and the referee in the middle of the game.
Making matters worse, there was extremely aggressive three-line whipping, which is alleged to have included threats to cut funding to the constituencies of any Tory MP who refused to support the plot against parliamentary standards. As one journalist remarked, “That’s not parliamentary government - that’s government as an extortion racket”. Eventually, the amendment was passed - though it is not without significance that 13 Conservative MPs voted against with 97 absent or abstaining (throwing a sickie, so to speak).
Facing intense criticism from all sections of the media and MPs of all parties, the Johnson government finally saw which way the wind - or rather, hurricane - was blowing and performed a screeching U-turn, announcing that a vote would still take place on whether Paterson should be suspended. But he fell on his sword anyway, sanctimoniously declaring that “I will remain a public servant but outside the cruel world of politics” - playing the victim, when the reality was that he had been caught bang to rights. Shameless to the very end, so you could argue that at least Owen Paterson was consistent.
There will now be a by-election in North Shropshire and it appears that MPs will get a chance next week to ‘unpick’ Boris Johnson’s bid to save Paterson’s skin.1 That is, they will be asked to vote to scrap for good the planned new committee and also vote again on the suspension - meaning that the case against him will be considered formally by parliament. Better late than never, I suppose. Needless to say, the always shameless Boris Johnson refuses to apologise for the fiasco - which indeed it was - and George Eustice, the gormless environment minister, described the affair as a “storm in a teacup”. Trying to subvert parliamentary procedure to protect an errant chum and intimidate the parliamentary commissioner for standards is nothing to get vexed about, apparently.
Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of “leading his troops through the sewer”, calling the Paterson debacle “political corruption” - which is obviously true. Even former Tory prime minister John Major gave vent to his outrage, condemning the government’s actions as “shameful and wrong” - they had “the effect of trashing the reputation of parliament”, he said.
The whole unedifying Paterson saga has acted, of course, to lift the lid on something that is endemic in Westminster and affects all the major parties - it just takes different forms. However, in the government party - which has been in office uninterruptedly since 2010 - it is spectacularly egregious.
For instance, if we look at former premiers and government ministers, many of them are now working for big corporations and foreign governments as advisors, able to provide their new employers with access to current ministers and top civil servants. Naturally, Paterson’s conduct has focused attention on moonlighting MPs - some trousering large amounts of money without a second thought. More than a quarter of Tory MPs have second jobs with firms whose activities range from gambling to private healthcare, making in total more than £4 million in extra earnings in a year - with the highest earners being former cabinet ministers, of course.
The highest of all is Andrew Mitchell, the MP for Sutton Coldfield, who made £182,600 for 34.5 days’ work in a variety of financial advisory roles, with firms including Investec and EY. Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general, is making around £1 million a year as a barrister. He is now mired in allegations that he has used his Commons office for legal work - something else totally against the rules. Since being sacked as a minister in a February reshuffle, Cox has spoken in the chamber just once. It is clear where his priorities lie.
As for Chris Grayling, the former transport secretary, he is being paid £100,000 a year from Hutchison Ports Europe. The weird John Redwood, former Welsh secretary, is earning more than £230,000 working for an investment advisory company, Charles Stanley, and a private equity firm - while Alun Cairns, a former Welsh secretary, acts as advisor to a Wales-based global diagnostics company, BBI, with all his consultancy roles bringing in a total of £60,000. Liam Fox, a former trade secretary, has a £10,000 contract with WorldPR, while Julian Smith, the former chief whip, is making about £144,000 a year from advisory roles with marine, renewables and hydrogen firms. Two Tories have jobs linked to the gambling industry: Laurence Robertson, Tory MP for Tewkesbury, gets £24,000 a year as parliamentary advisor to the Betting and Gaming Council, while Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, is paid £16,660 by GVC Holdings, owner of Coral and Ladbrokes, plus £12,000 a year by the National Pawnbroking Association. Many Labour MPs have fingers in many pies as well, it goes without saying.
We have also discovered recently that the going rate for a seat in the House of Lords is £3 million - whether that is a bargain or not I leave to the reader to decide. We found this out after The Sunday Times reported that in the past two decades, all 16 of the Tory Party’s main treasurers (apart from the most recent, who stood down two months ago, having donated £3.8 million) have been offered a seat in the other place as a reward for forking out the required sum to party funds. The most scandalous appointment was that of Lord Cruddas, whose estimated wealth is at least $1.3 billion - he took his seat after Johnson rejected the advice of the House of Lords appointment commission not to grant him a peerage. An ex-party chair told the newspaper: “The truth is the entire political establishment knows this happens and they do nothing about it … The most telling line is, once you pay your £3 million, you get your peerage.”
Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that the Paterson scandal and all the rest of it will have any long-term effects politically - unless key sections of the media and the establishment decide that Boris Johnson is too much of a liability and has to be replaced by the second eleven.
Maybe there are slight intimations of that in some newspapers, one dredging up an old school report by the prime minister’s housemaster at Eton - who noted the young Johnson’s belief that he should be treated as “an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.2 If you are old enough to remember, that is what happened to John Major - who became engulfed by sleaze scandals despite his vacuous ‘back to basics’ campaign (or perhaps because of it). Essentially, the Murdoch media empire switched over to Tony Blair, who then crushed Major electorally. Whether that happens to Boris Johnson remains an entirely open question, but it would be idiotic to assume that his days are numbered - far too early to say.
No, we need to see how things pan out, not least because it looks like Johnson will be stirring the Brexit pot again after Cop26 finally wraps up - especially when it comes to the Northern Ireland protocol and the possible invoking of article 16. Now making himself out as the saviour of the world (forget Greta Thunberg), Johnson returned to the climate conference on November 10 for a maximum-publicity one-day visit - something which had obviously been planned in advance. He urged the climate negotiators to “pull out all the stops”, saying all countries needed to come to the table with “increased ambition” in order to keep “alive” the target of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC.
Or, using typically Johnsonian expressions, we were 5-1 down at halftime, now it is 5-5 and with one more burst to the goal line we will win 6-5 in extra time. All this is complete nonsense, of course, but that has never stopped the prime minister before.