William Hallowell: Owen Paterson has put his former colleagues in a damning and difficult position

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By William Hallowell.

The Paterson lobbying scandal has been another PR disaster for this Government. But on this occasion, Conservative backbenchers will suffer too. 

This week saw another Conservative scandal. Hit with claims of ‘sleaze’ and ‘corruption’ by the media and opposition parties, the Government found itself at the centre of another self-inflicted scandal, forcing it, once again, to perform the embarrassing ‘U-turn’. 

But whilst the Labour Party has since gained a lead in the opinion polls as a result, and the Government has become subject to yet another scandal, Tory MPs who don’t hold any ministerial or Cabinet positions will also be hit hard despite not being at the forefront of another media outburst. 

When this Government has endured several PR disasters over the course of the pandemic, it has usually been those ‘at the top’ who have suffered the most at the hands of the British press and endured the most public outrage: from accusations of bullying against Priti Patel, to Matt Hancock’s affair, even to the Prime Minister himself on various occasions. However, in the case of Owen Paterson’s lobbying scandal, backbenchers will also endure criticism and questions at the hands of their constituents. 

As with any Government scandal, such as those of the Home Secretary or the former Health Secretary, general unpopularity is likely to be received – however long it may last. Though the thoughts of constituents may have turned sour towards the Conservative Party after these respective PR disasters, it has not been local MPs who have suffered greatly at the hands of the public or press. But everybody, except the Noes who defied the party’s three-line whip last Thursday, is coming out of this scandal looking rather guilty. 

This lobbying scandal is different than those previous because most of the party – including those who unashamedly chose to abstain from voting – are complicit in allowing for the Leadsom Amendment to alter the way in which MPs’ conduct is policed, the overturning of the select committee’s guilty finding and the party to ‘get their mate off the hook’, as Angela Rayner phrased it. Regardless of whether or not the Government later decided to backtrack following the controversy of the vote, Ayes and abstainers are still responsible for allowing this shocking Amendment to pass. 

But only after the outcome of the vote, and the media’s reporting of it, did it become clear as to why so many backbenchers decided to tow the line at the whip’s demands. The Financial Times reported that MPs were threatened with funding cuts to their constituencies, and sackings from ministerial positions, should they defy the whip. This is not, however, a justification for voting with the Government, but rather an explanation as to why. 

MPs have both a duty to uphold the fundamental, democratic principle of accountability for parliamentarians, and to their constituents; ultimately, politicians should represent their constituents first and their party second. Out of principle, therefore, they had a responsibility to defy the Government on its attempt to avoid scrutiny by passing this Amendment, and overrule the committee’s verdict. Ask any constituent in any constituency, anywhere in the UK whether they would rather their MP side with their party over a vote that would enable a colleague to avoid accountability for breaking a serious rule, and that questions the standard to which we hold politicians, or suffer local funding cuts for favouring principle: I’d wager they’d rather take the funding cut, if it meant integral and principled democratic representation. 

The serious implication of this Government’s attempt to override the decision of an independent body, and rewrite the rules in a way that fits them, is that it displays – yet again – the narrative that our politicians are above the law and above us, and perpetuates the notion that politicians also think they are above the law and above us when they are not. It also highlights the roots from which the disillusionment from the political establishment is felt, and where the distrust in our politicians originates. 

If Conservative backbenchers are no different and no better to their Cabinet seniors, and are willing to back such intentions from the Government, this will only inevitably lead to a significant loss in electoral support. But integral, dignified, principled politicians would sooner accept sackings or take funding cuts to their constituencies for disobeying the party line, before blind loyalty takes over and they follow their party into the deep abyss, to which point there is no option to ‘U-turn’. 

For more from William Hallowell please follow him on Twitter.

© 2021 William Hallwell

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