Who are friends to judge us?
It turns out the system was wrong, we now discover
Has an MP ever been more unfortunate in his friends than Owen Paterson? After 90 minutes in which the House of Commons had discussed whether the guilty verdict in his cash-for-access case should be reassessed, in which his allies had argued that not to do so would be a defiance of “natural justice”, Paterson stood up from his seat and calmly walked through the lobbies to vote in his own favour.
It was at this moment that a true friend would have wrestled Paterson to the floor, or locked him in the toilets, or simply explained to him how not-very-natural justicey it would look for him to vote on his own verdict.
But then this case has, from start to finish, been dominated by its central figure’s inability to grasp his situation. Paterson’s defence, in essence, is that he’s obviously innocent and so any process that finds him guilty must be flawed. Even in September, as he appealed to MPs on the Standards Committee to acquit him, the transcript suggests he didn’t really get what he was accused of.
For all these reasons, “Owen Paterson’s Judgement” seems an unwise thing for the Conservatives to have lashed themselves to. But no one should be surprised to find their ethical compass goes haywire if they let Boris Johnson get his hands on it.
It was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s job, as Leader of the House of Commons, to move the motion that would have suspended Paterson. Instead he seemed to be taking the other side. “I come not to defend my right honourable friend,” he said. “It is not for me to judge him. Others have done that.” No, Rees-Mogg’s job was simply to facilitate the overturning of that judgement.
He made much of his regret at “how quickly what goes on in the chamber becomes partisan”. Labour MPs couldn’t contain their laughter at that. Rees-Mogg, for all his ostentatious gentility, is a partisan to the tips of his polished shoes.
For someone who hadn’t come to defend Paterson, he spent an awfully long time setting out the familiar elements of Paterson’s defence: the length of time the inquiry had taken, which is apparently a reason to prolong it further; the failure to call witnesses that Paterson is convinced would acquit him.
But this wasn’t about Paterson anyway, Rees-Mogg explained: “This is about the process, and not the individual case.” Given how not about Paterson this was, it is particularly unlucky that, of all the days when the government could have decided to upend Parliament’s disciplinary system, it chose the day when MPs were voting on whether to punish Paterson.
The man himself sat impassive through it all, barely moving. Next to him was Desmond Swayne, slouched in his seat, arms crossed, his entire posture displaying his contempt for the idea that anyone should have the cheek, the damned bloody cheek, to hold one of his friends to account.
Looming over the session was the suicide last year of Paterson’s wife, Rose. Rees-Mogg suggested that this was a reason to show “mercy” to his colleague, who had already suffered so much. But Paterson was not asking for leniency, he was asking for acquittal, for MPs to say he had done nothing wrong.
Paterson was not asking for leniency, he was asking for acquittal
It fell to Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, to explain to him that it looked very much as though he had. He said he would have supported taking no action against Paterson on compassionate grounds, but couldn’t support rewriting the rules for him. He urged Paterson to apologise. “I still hope that were I in that situation I would have the sense to accept there are views other than my own,” he said.
Other Tories, too, attacked the idea of changing the rules at the last minute. Simon Hoare called it “embarrassing”. Aaron Bell said it “looks like we’re moving the goalposts”. Though perhaps Paterson felt this was only fair, given that the badgers moved them first.
It was Labour’s Chris Bryant — the chair of the Standards Committee that had found against Paterson — who closed the debate, setting out calmly and carefully how it had reached its conclusions. Witnesses didn’t need to be called if their evidence wasn’t disputed, he explained, and most of the delays in the case had been at Paterson’s request.
Paterson had been paid — still is being paid — more than £9,000 a month by two companies. “He did the one thing that he was banned from doing: lobby ministers time and again in a way that conferred a direct benefit on his paying clients.” Tories knew this, Bryant said, and had told him so privately. He suggested Rees-Mogg was among them.
The vote, when it came, was surprisingly narrow, a majority of just 18. Nearly a third of Tories didn’t vote. Within minutes, the proposed new committee was in trouble, with opposition parties boycotting it.
But Swayne, next to Paterson, looked delighted. A more circumspect person might have pondered Bryant’s closing warning to Paterson: “The danger is that, if the amendment is carried, his name will become a byword for bad behaviour.” It’s the kind of point that a wiser friend would have made, quite some time ago.
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