MPs back ban on paid lobbying as Labour leader brands Johnson a ‘coward’

Prime Minister admits mistake in trying to change rules to save Owen Paterson

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: told the House of Commons liaison committee that he now accepted that the former Northern secretary broke the rules. Handout photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Boris Johnson has admitted that he made a mistake in trying to change parliamentary rules on MPs' behaviour to save former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson from suspension for paid lobbying.

The British prime minister told the House of Commons liaison committee that he now accepted that Mr Paterson broke the rules and blamed his colleagues for his short-lived attempt to create a new standards committee with a Conservative majority.

Mr Paterson, whose wife died by suicide during the parliamentary investigation into his actions on behalf of companies that paid him £100,000 a year, resigned as an MP after the prime minister abandoned his attempt to save him.

“I think it was a very sad case but I think there’s no question that he had fallen foul of the rules on paid advocacy as far as I could see from the report. The question that people wanted to establish was whether or not given the particularly tragic circumstances he had a fair right to appeal,” Mr Johnson said.

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MPs on Wednesday night voted in favour of a new government proposal to ban them from getting paid for political consulting or lobbying and to set limits on how much time they could spend on second jobs. A Labour proposal for tougher curbs, including a ban on almost all second jobs, was defeated.

Failure to apologise

During prime minister's questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer described Mr Johnson as a coward for his failure to apologise for trying to change the rules to save Mr Paterson.

"Here's the difference: when somebody in my party misbehaves, I kick them out. When somebody in his party misbehaves, he tries to get them off the hook," Sir Keir said.

Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle intervened a number of times to rebuke Mr Johnson for attempting to question Sir Keir about his work while an MP for law firm Mishcon de Reya.

After prime minister's questions, MPs voted to compel the government to publish details of contracts won during the coronavirus pandemic by Randox, one of the companies Mr Paterson worked for. The government said it could not find a minute of a call between Randox and health minister Lord Bethell, but the company said it would co-operate with any inquiry.

During the debate on MPs’ second jobs, leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said such experience enhanced parliament rather than diminishing performance.

‘Westminster bubble’

“The government believes that it is an historic strength of our system that MPs should have a wider focus than the Westminster bubble, that we should maintain connections to the world beyond so that we may draw on the insight and expertise that this experience offers, and that rather than a chamber replete with professional politicians with no previous career or future career other than to remain on the public payroll, we have a parliament that benefits from MPs with a broader range of talents and professional backgrounds,” he said.

Conservative Charles Walker complained that MPs were "burning each other to a crisp" in the debate on standards.

“We love to skewer each other and place ourselves on the barbecue and roast ourselves pink and then serve ourselves up with a large side order of hubris,” he said. “The one thing I’ve learnt is that we’re not entitled to a fair hearing in this place; we’re guilty until proven guilty. It’s one of Newton’s laws: if you’re an MP you don’t get a fair hearing.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times