Demeaning of democracy

Published by The Daily Mail (3rd November, 2021)

How strange it is to reflect that Owen Paterson — a popular and well-connected figure on the Tory right — was seen once as a possible party leader.

He’s spent four years in Cabinet, overseeing Northern Ireland and then Environment, although his time at the top table was most memorable for his claim that ‘the badgers have moved the goalposts’ when asked about the failure to hit a cull target.

There were too many such own goals: a botched response to summer floods, strident opposition to same-sex marriage and a perceived scepticism on climate change.

Yet after returning to the backbenches in 2014, there was talk that Paterson might lead the looming Brexit campaign. He set up a think-tank and gave interviews on his plan to find the next leader, insisting the focus was on policies rather than his own campaign.

But far from becoming a substantial political figure, the North Shropshire MP is now fighting to cling on to his career after becoming snared in a tawdry lobbying scandal that threatens to further demean our political system.

Today, MPs will vote on whether to suspend Paterson from Parliament for 30 days. This would then trigger an automatic recall petition and might lead to a by-election, thereby potentially terminating his time in frontline politics.

We must hope our representatives do their duty — despite a vociferous campaign by the former minister’s friends to dilute his punishment.

Anything less would insult voters — and, once again, chip away at the electorate’s wobbling faith in Westminster after yet another lobbying scandal.

As so often, this saga revolves around the grubby nexus of money, access and power that defiles our battered democracy with such shabby regularity.

The truth is, after leaving the Cabinet, Paterson cashed in — like many of our elected representatives at Westminster. In 2015, the year after David Cameron dismissed him from the Cabinet, Paterson was hired as a consultant by Randox, a firm making diagnostic equipment and medical tests, at a princely £500 an hour.

Two years later, he took on another consultancy with meat firm Lynn’s Country Foods Ltd. Together these jobs provided Paterson with a six-figure annual bonus on top of his £81,000 parliamentary salary.

Such payments are not illegal so long as they are all declared properly — and Paterson did declare them —although cynics might wonder why a man nicknamed ‘Wooden Top’ for his intellectual heft might be so valuable to those two firms.

Randox doubled Paterson’s pay to £100,000 a year as well as donating to his pro-Brexit think-tank UK2020, which funded ten foreign trips by the former minister before being shut down two years ago.

Now it has emerged the Tory grandee committed an ‘egregious’ breach of lobbying rules by repeatedly using his job as an MP to benefit these two companies over a 40-month period up to February last year.

An investigation by Kathryn Stone, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, found he breached the code of conduct by using his parliamentary office on 16 occasions for meetings relating to his outside business interests and in sending two letters relating to business interests on House of Commons headed notepaper.

Her report found that his approaches ‘conferred significant benefits on Randox and Lynn’s in the long term and even in the short term secured meetings that would not have been available without Mr Paterson’s involvement.’

Randox also saw its fortunes boosted in the pandemic by winning a £133 million contract to produce Covid testing kits — although like some other controversial deals won by outfits with political links in the crisis, it was awarded ‘without prior publication of a call for competition, in light of the extreme urgency’.

The recommendation for a 30-day suspension came from the House of Commons standards committee, which considered the allegations against Paterson and concluded unanimously that he had brought the House into disrepute.

The vote should be a slam dunk. The rules are clear. They were broken. Indeed, a majority of the committee, which has seven lay participants, saw his misdeeds as so serious that they supported a suspension of greater length.

Bear in mind these offences come after a series of lobbying scandals that have stained our politics. Paterson, of course, insists on his propriety. He says he acted ‘properly, honestly and within the rules’.

His friends in the Commons, including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and veteran Tory troublemaker David Davis, agree and are sniping about the system’s unfairness. They argue Paterson’s actions flagged up food safety issues, thereby saving lives.

But Paterson sent a series of emails to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of Lynn’s Foods without declaring he was a paid consultant. In one initiative he sought to have a competitor firm forced to re-label a product so as not to compete with Lynn’s own products.

The MP also claimed he had to hold business meetings in Parliament to be present for key votes, which would have kept them within rules. But the meetings he cited took place at 9.30am and 3.15pm, with MPs voting at 10pm.

In addition, Paterson wrote to then-International Development Secretary Priti Patel asking her to meet with representatives of Randox so they could discuss using its technology to help with aid projects that involved blood testing. And he met with junior International Development minister Rory Stewart to discuss ‘potential commercial opportunities Randox may wish to explore’.

These issues are, of course, made more complicated by the widespread sympathy felt towards Paterson after last year’s suicide of his wife Rose. He has said the mother-of-three’s struggles were intensified by this ordeal fighting to prevent political disaster.

She chaired Aintree race track — and Randox sponsored the Grand National. Meanwhile the couple’s friend Dido Harding, who oversaw the test and trace fiasco in the pandemic, sat on the board of the Jockey Club that owns Aintree. There are no allegations of wrongdoing against either woman.

Rose Paterson’s death was a terrible tragedy. Yet however sad and painful, it cannot be used to excuse a politician deemed guilty of inappropriate activities for several years while earning considerable sums from outside interests.

This might sound harsh. Not least when those previously ousted from Parliament in such a process were a Labour backbencher sent to prison for perverting the course of justice and a Tory minnow convicted of fiddling his expenses.

But Paterson broke the rules to advocate on behalf of outside paymasters, lobbying ministers and officials alike to adopt measures that would benefit his employers. This is, quite simply, unacceptable behaviour from an MP — especially at this time of wavering faith in our political system.

We have seen again and again with disturbing clarity how a few grasping politicians are easy prey for hustlers and firms on the make, thereby damaging the reputation of all their decent colleagues who strive hard to stay in the rules.

Paterson once lost a high-profile job after complaining badgers moved the goalposts. If his colleagues now shift the parliamentary goalposts on sleaze to protect a popular colleague, it would be another dark day for our democracy.

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