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 of these own goals: a failed response to summer floods; strident opposition to same sex marriage; and a perceived scepticism about climate change.
But, there was talk of Paterson leading the looming Brexit campaign after he returned to the backbenches. He established a think-tank, and gave interviews about his plans to find the next leader. He stressed that the focus was on policies and not his campaign.
The North Shropshire MP is far from a significant political figure. He is trying to keep his career alive after being ensnared by a corrupt lobbying scandal that threatens our political system.
Today, MPs will vote whether to suspend Paterson for 30 days from Parliament. This would trigger an automated recall petition and could lead to a By-election, potentially ending Paterson’s tenure in frontline political work.
How strange it is to reflect that Owen Paterson (pictured) — a popular and well-connected figure on the Tory right — was seen once as a possible party leader
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 is so often, the saga revolves about the grubby nexus between money, access, and power that defiles 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.
In 2015, the year after David Cameron (pictured) 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
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.
Kathryn Stone, Parliamentary Commissary for Standards, investigated and found that he had violated the code of conduct in using his parliamentary office 16 times for meetings relating outside business interests, and in sending two letters related 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 House of Commons standards committee recommended a 30-day suspension. It reviewed the allegations against Paterson, and unanimously concluded that he had brought disrepute to the House.
Senior Tory MPs last night launched a last-ditch attempt to spare Owen Paterson from a 30-day Commons suspension for an ‘egregious’ breach of lobbying rules by calling for a reform of the system – but any reform would need to be selected to be voted on by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle (pictured)
Voting should be easy. The rules are clear. They were broken. The majority of the seven lay members of the committee supported a suspension of longer duration because they considered his misdeeds to be so serious.
These offences follow a string of lobbying scandals that have stained the politics.
Paterson 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 claimed that he had to attend business meetings in Parliament to vote on key issues. This would have allowed him to keep them within the rules. He cited meetings at 9.30am and 3.15pm. MPs voted at 10.
Paterson also wrote to Priti Patel, then-International Development Secretary, asking her to meet Randox representatives to discuss the possibility of using its technology in aid projects that required 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.
These issues are, of course, made more complicated by the widespread sympathy felt towards Paterson (right) after last year’s suicide of his wife Rose (left)
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 that either woman was wrongdoing.
Rose Paterson’s death was a terrible tragedy. It is a terrible and tragic loss, but it cannot be used as an excuse for a politician who was convicted of inappropriate activities over many years while still earning substantial sums from outside interests.
This may sound harsh. This was especially true when the Labour backbencher was sent to prison for perverting justice, and a Tory minnow was convicted of fumbling his expenses.
Paterson violated the rules by lobbying ministers and officials to adopt measures that would be beneficial to 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 with disturbing clarity, again and again, how some grasping politicians can be easy prey for hustlers or firms on the make, thereby destroying the reputation of all their decent coworkers who work hard to follow the rules.
Paterson lost a high-profile position after complaining that badgers moved the goalposts.
It would be another dark day in democracy if his colleagues shift the parliamentary goalposts on sleaze in order to protect a popular colleague.