The Conservatives’ reaction to the Paterson fiasco is a scare for democracy | William Hallowell
A government aggressive to accountability of its politicians is a government autocratic and hostile to democracy.
‘Sleaze’ is the common accusation used against the Conservatives by opposition parties when there is the next inevitable Government scandal. The case of Owen Paterson’s guilt of paid lobbying – and the Government’s reaction to it – is no exception to this accusation, and it’s a fair one.
Simply, what is the point of having set standards for our politicians to abide by, like anybody else in any other profession, if our public servants do not and will not abide by them? And can a Government be truly democratic if it will avoid attempts at accountability and scrutiny from the press and the public?
The Government’s reaction to this scandal is autocratic and devoid of respect for the procedure of accountability of politicians. It is not often that one finds oneself agreeing with the words of opposition members of the Commons, but Labour’s Jess Phillips raises the perfectly reasonable point of a double standard: would this Government be voting for an amendment to reform the way in which the conduct of MPs is policed, and overturn the guilty verdict of the select committee, had it been put forward by the Leader of the Opposition after a Labour politician was found guilty of breaking lobbying rules? And would they, in fact, call on the MP to resign as a result of their actions? Likely not.
In the debate on Wednesday, even Deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, too, made the point that “in no other profession… could someone be found guilty by an independent process, and just have their mates vote them back into the job.” Governments, irrespective of party or size, should not have the power to enable such decisions. A government aggressive towards accountability, no less the accountability of an independent body or decision, is a government afraid of, and hostile, to democracy. This must not be the precedent for our liberal democracy, nor the anticipated or accepted behaviour of a government that respects such a system.
The Government’s reaction to the Paterson scandal is the equivalent of a state that runs its own judiciary system – and in no circumstance should any government be allowed the responsibility to hold itself accountable, without the supervision of a free and independent body, press or people.
It should be expected that, should a politician break such rules, and deliberately too, they must resign. Otherwise, the standard to which our country holds our parliamentarians is too low. This total display of contempt for the rules is no less than shameful, and Paterson should have resigned on the committee’s finding, out of principle (as opposed to waiting until Thursday afternoon, when it was simply too late). What is worse, however, is the Government’s success in voting to overturn the findings of Owen Paterson’s lobbying and to reform the way in which our politicians are policed, in spite of the marginal majority of the vote.
In conscience and morality, Conservative MPs, as public servants, had a responsibility to democracy, and their representatives, to disobey the party’s three-line whip and vote against the Leadsom amendment – and abstention is just as weak a position to take as to vote in favour of it. But the ludicrousness of some Conservative MPs on the matter has been no better displayed than by Angela Richardson. Sacked from her position as a ministerial aide to Michael Gove for abstaining from the vote, she has since been re-appointed to the role after the Government U-turned on Thursday – she said she is “pleased to be appointed”. So happy to be thrown under the bus when it was suitable, the Government only re-appointed her out of convenience of the U-turn.
However, the backtrack on the vote does not amount to a retraction of intention or reversal of position on the matter (out of integrity at least). This is epitomic of an apology as a result of public reaction, not an apology for actions or intentions. The fact that Commons Leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has admitted that the vote has “created a certain amount of controversy” reveals this. And his suggestion on Thursday that the vote was not motivated by current circumstances is absolutely absurd and disingenuous.
The precedent this case sets for British politics is dangerous if it means offending MPs will not be punished, not least have the rules changed to bend around those that were broken.
Before having resigned, Paterson avoided a thirty day Commons suspension. In reality, the consequences for breaking the rules should be far greater. This is a grave moment for our ‘liberal democracy’, and it is alarming for the standard to which we should hold powerful public servants, and exercise democratic accountability.