Owen Paterson: Conservative MP resigns amid UK lobbying scandal

Owen Paterson announces decision to quit Parliament after major row erupts over sleaze allegations.

Paterson said he was unable to 'clear his name' under the UK Parliament's current system for dealing with alleged wrongdoing by legislators [File: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

British legislator Owen Paterson has said he will resign after Parliament’s standards watchdog found he broke paid lobbying rules.

Announcing his decision to step down on Thursday, the Conservative Party politician said he was “totally innocent” of the charges levelled against him by the House of Commons standards committee.

The watchdog last month concluded Paterson had committed an “egregious case of paid advocacy” by repeatedly using his position to promote two companies, which together paid him nearly three times his annual parliamentary salary. It recommended that he be suspended from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days.

But on Wednesday, in a highly controversial move, Conservative members of Parliament, backed by party leader and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, voted against Paterson’s proposed suspension. It marked the first time in decades that legislators had not accepted a decision by the standards committee.

Instead, they pushed through a proposal to delay the suspension and set up a new committee to review the Commons’ disciplinary process. Opposition parties responded with fury and threatened to boycott future standards actions.

Less than 24 hours later, and prior to Paterson’s own announcement on Thursday, Johnson’s government said that it was backtracking on its plans to overhaul the system for combating parliamentary corruption in the wake of the backlash, which saw critics accuse the Conservative Party of “wallowing in sleaze” for its support for the former environment secretary.

House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would look for a cross-party consensus on overhauling the disciplinary process and that the link between the Paterson case and the future system for investigating wrongdoing by members of Parliament must be severed.

“I fear last night’s debate conflated the individual case with the general concern,’’ Rees-Mogg told Parliament on Thursday. “This link needs to be broken.”

‘Unbelievable’ 24 hours

Paterson, who has said the stress of the investigation into his conduct contributed to his wife’s death by suicide last year, has been a member of Parliament since 1997.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone said in October that he had lobbied the government in 2016 and 2017 on behalf of two companies that were paying him – the clinical diagnostics company Randox and the meat-processing firm Lynn’s Country Foods.

But Paterson claimed in his statement that he had “acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety”. He had previously disputed the standards committee’s findings and said witnesses who came forward to support him were not spoken to.

“I am unable to clear my name under the current system,” he said, before describing the decision to resign as a “painful decision … but the right one”.

Paterson’s resignation will trigger a by-election in his constituency of North Shropshire, a Conservative stronghold. He said he would “remain a public servant”, albeit “outside the cruel world of politics”.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party,  said Paterson’s announcement had capped “an unbelievable 24 hours even by this government’s chaotic standards”.

“Only yesterday Boris Johnson was forcing his MPs to rip up the rules on standards in public life. It’s a truly damning indictment of this Prime Minister and the corrupt government he leads,” Starmer wrote on Twitter.

The Labour leader called on the prime minister to now “apologise for the grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend”.

“He must also explain how he will fix the immense harm he has done to confidence in the probity of him and his MPs,” Starmer said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies