‘Cruel world of politics’: Inside story of the Tory U-turn that meant Owen Paterson’s career was over

Owen Paterson knew his political career was effectively over during a phone call from Mark Spencer, the Government’s Chief Whip, just after 10am on Thursday.

Mr Spencer told the former environment secretary that there would be another vote on whether to ban him from the Commons for six weeks over lobbying allegations, which would take place as early as next week. Crucially, Tory MPs would not be ordered to support Mr Paterson.

Within hours, Mr Paterson had issued a statement resigning as the MP for North Shropshire – a seat he had held since 1997 – and leaving "the cruel world of politics".

Owen Paterson, pictured here with his daughter Evie, said he had been urged by his children to leave politics

Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

He said his "children had asked him to leave politics altogether, for my sake as well as for theirs".

He lamented how his "integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned”. 

He added: “I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of. I am unable to clear my name in the current system.

"The last few days have been intolerable for us. Worst of all was seeing people, including MPs, publicly mock and deride Rose’s death and belittle our pain."

Owen Paterson’s statement in full

Allies of Mr Paterson were particularly angered by some Labour MPs allegedly making a mock "ahh-ing" sound when his wife’s name was mentioned by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions.

What a difference a day makes

The future had looked so different for Mr Paterson just 24 hours earlier, when MPs had voted to reform the standards system and overturn his suspension – giving him a path back to mainstream politics.

Boris Johnson led the defence of Owen Paterson in the House of Commons

Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire

Mr Johnson had publicly backed Mr Paterson from the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions, supporting a Commons motion which called for an overhaul of the rules governing how MPs are policed.

In a later debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, made clear that the verdict on Mr Paterson would be set aside and his fate decided by the new system.

Yet unease about the plan soon emerged in the Commons as Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House of Commons, said he would vote against the overhaul.

He said: "We chose the system we are now using. If we want to consider changing it, we should do it in a proper way. I don’t regard this as appropriate now."

Aaron Bell, a "Red Wall" Tory MP elected in 2019, added that the reform "looks like we’re moving the goalposts, and for that reason I can’t support it".

Despite a three-line whip on Conservative MPs, 13 voted against the Government and 98 abstained, with 60 given permission to miss the vote by the whip’s office. Some were away from Parliament.

Owen Paterson listening to Wednesday's debate in the House of Commons

Credit: House of Commons/PA Wire

In all, nearly a third of the Parliamentary party had declined to support Mr Paterson – including Simon Hoare and Will Wragg, both Tory select committee chairmen, as well as several of the 2019 intake of Tory MPs.

Within hours, the reforms appeared dead in the water after opposition parties said they would refuse to cooperate with any overhaul of the system.

Yet that evening, Mr Paterson carried out a series of interviews with television and newspaper journalists – including The Telegraph – in which he struck a defiant tone.

Mr Paterson’s words showed that he had not understood the narrowness of the vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday, which the Conservatives won with a majority of just 18.

In his interviews, Mr Paterson turned his fire on Kathryn Stone, the House of Commons official whose report had laid bare how he had lobbied ministers and officials for two companies that paid him over £100,000 per year.

Mr Paterson said that both Ms Stone and the entire standards committee should resign. "Sadly, they have not done a good job and come up with a rotten report which is full of inaccuracies," he said.

The bullish tone of his remarks did not go down well among ministers. One adviser to a Cabinet minister said that his remarks had "soured things".

Thursday morning’s headlines made grim reading for Mr Paterson and 10 Downing Street.

One report, by Insider magazine, pointed out that 22 of the Tory MPs who voted for the shake-up of the standards system were either under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, or have had allegations upheld against them since the 2019 general election.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, was sent on a round of media interviews live from the Cop26 conference in Glasgow. He was soon besieged with questions about sleaze.

Mr Kwarteng attracted ridicule when he claimed that Mr Paterson had been a "victim" of the standards process.

There was further outrage when Mr Kwarteng became the first member of the Government to suggest publicly that Ms Stone should consider resigning over the affair.

He said: "It is difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given we are reviewing the process, and trying to reform. It is up to the commissioner to decide her own position."

That prompted more outrage from the opposition as Anneliese Dodds, the Labour Party chairman, said that she would "absolutely not" call for Ms Stone to resign.

Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrats’ chief whip, added: "They are targeting those who uphold the rules, rather than those who break them.

"These shameful attempts to drag the standards commissioner through the mud have to be called out for what they truly are – an attack on our democracy."

The criticism was piling up. At the Institute for Government think tank, Lord Evans, a former head of MI5 and the chairman of the separate Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: "Events confirm our view that we are at the point of the cycle where it’s time to look again and to reassess."

Warning of a risk that the UK could "slip into being a corrupt country", Lord Evans said: "It’s time to re-establish our commitment to credible, independent regulation of the ethical standards of public office holders."

Tobias Ellwood, a senior Conservative MP, added: "I know many colleagues including ministers were troubled by the Government’s tactics.

"The Government may have won the vote but we’ve lost the argument and, indeed, some of the moral high ground. Parliament’s reputation has now been damaged."

The phone call from the Chief Whip

Mr Spencer put through the call to Mr Paterson just before 10.30am, warning him of the climbdown on the plans which was to be announced by Mr Rees-Mogg at the Commons’ weekly business questions.

One source said that it was clear during that conversation Mr Paterson "could see the writing on the wall and that it was going to destroy him and his family".

Facing MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg acknowledged that there had been a "certain amount of controversy" caused by Wednesday’s vote overturning the ruling on Mr Paterson.

The Commons Leader said the House "voted very clearly" to change the system, but this change must be on the cross-party basis.

"There is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case, or applied retrospectively. Last night’s debate conflated the individual case with the general concern.

"This link needs to be broken, therefore I and others will be working on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements to our system for future cases."

The climbdown had its first tangible result when Angela Richardson, the Conservative MP for Guildford, who had been sacked as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Levelling Up department for rebelling over the plans on Wednesday, was given her job back.

Tory MPs started to put the boot in. Mark Harper, himself a former government chief whip, said the Conservatives’ whipping of Tory MPs to back the amendment was "unedifying".

The Forest of Dean MP, who had defied the whip on Wednesday, said: "This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament.

"My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this. This must not happen again."

Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough, sent a photograph to The Telegraph showing a photo of his constituency office with "Tory sleaze" daubed across the windows. He said his office had been "vandalised because of the way I voted".

Peter Bone, the Wellingborough MP, said his office was 'vandalised because of the way I voted'

Credit: Peter Bone MP

Number 10 confirmed the about-turn at its lunchtime meeting for Lobby journalists, telling reporters that the Prime Minister understood "the strength of feeling" among MPs and the lack of "cross-party support for the changes".

Resignation

Mr Paterson bowed to the inevitable just after 2.30pm.

Shock among MPs around Westminster was palpable. Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior member of the 1922 committee, admitted in a statement that "this matter was not handled as well as it should have been".

One former Conservative minister said that it was a case of "really poor horizon scanning by the whips,” adding: “They marched Owen up to the top of the hill when they should’ve known he had no support.”

Another Conservative MP said: "The anger is very much focussed on the Chief and the whips. The Chief’s entire authority has been absolutely machine-gunned. He has just lost all authority in the parliamentary party."

A third Tory MP said: "If the whips had done their job, the Government had the ability to reschedule this or take it off the agenda. I worry about the attitude that was adopted here. It was lackadaisical and nonchalant.”

However, friends of Mr Spencer brushed off suggestions that Mr Johnson had given him a dressing down over the affair and made clear there were no hard feelings over the rebels who defied him.

They insisted that if there had been a mistake, it had been to try to use Mr Paterson’s case to reform a standards system – which nevertheless still needed reform to give it an appeals’ process.

One friend said: "He does not regret for one second circling the wagons around a colleague who is in trouble. He would do the same with any other colleague.”

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