PM under pressure as minister admits ‘mistake’ in handling of sleaze row

The Prime Minister is under increasing pressure after a minister admitted the Government made a “mistake” by attempting to change standards rules to prevent a Tory MP from being suspended.

Boris Johnson skipped an emergency Commons debate on Parliament’s standards system, leaving it to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to respond for the Government as the Prime Minister chose to instead honour a “long-standing” commitment to visit a North East hospital.

Steve Barclay told MPs that, while there were concerns with the way allegations of wrongdoing by MPs are probed, it had been an error for ministers to proceed in the way they did last week as they sought to rip up the current rules.

The fiery debate also saw former chief whip Mark Harper call on the Prime Minister to apologise for his handling of the sleaze row which has engulfed the Conservative Party over the past week, with more recently elected Tories expressing their dissatisfaction with Downing Street’s attitude.

It comes after Tory MPs were ordered on Wednesday to vote for a new committee to consider an altered system of appeals after former environment secretary Owen Paterson was sanctioned, only for ministers to backtrack only hours later after opposition parties refused to co-operate.

In the bitter aftermath of the row, Mr Paterson announced he was quitting as MP for North Shropshire after 24 years, blaming the “cruel world of politics”.

Former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson has opted to quit as an MP following the standards row
Former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson has opted to quit as an MP following the standards row (House of Commons/PA)

It followed a recommendation by the Commons Standards Committee that he should be suspended from Parliament for six weeks after committing an “egregious” breach of the centuries-old ban on paid lobbying by MPs.

Mr Paterson had hoped to challenge the finding through a new appeals system but there was anger among MPs on all sides of the House at the way ministers had sought to conflate his case with wider reform of the system.

Responding on Monday to the standards reform U-turn, Cabinet Office minister Mr Barclay said: “I’d like, first and foremost, to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week.

“We recognise there are concerns across the House over the standards system and also the process by which possible breaches of the code of conduct are investigated.

“Yet whilst sincerely held concerns clearly warrant further attention, the manner in which the Government approached last week’s debate conflated them with the response to an individual case.”

During the three-hour emergency debate, Mr Johnson was accused of “running scared” after deciding to follow through with his visit to an NHS hospital trust in Northumberland on Monday rather than be present to hear MPs’ criticisms of his Government’s handling of the Paterson affair.

Reports suggested the Conservative leader arrived back in London by about 5pm but opted not to return to Westminster for the debate, which went on until 7pm.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of failing to have the “decency” to address the Commons in person.

“Rather than repairing the damage that he’s done, the Prime Minister is running scared,” said Sir Keir.

Calls to apologise also came from his own backbenches, as Mr Harper pressed Mr Johnson to own up to his errors.

The former Cabinet minister said: “If on occasion, as on this occasion… the team captain gets it wrong, then I think he should come and apologise to the public and to this House.

“That’s the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership.”

Before the debate, Mr Johnson refused to apologise when asked repeatedly by broadcasters during his Northumberland trip whether he would do so, arguing that there were “long-standing concerns amongst MPs” about the way standards probes were handled.

Several Tories from the 2019 intake joined in speaking out about the sleaze row during the Commons debate, with one MP admitting they had endured a “miserable time” since last week’s vote.

Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme who rebelled to oppose the amendment on Wednesday that would have delayed Mr Paterson’s suspension, said many of his colleagues who were elected during Mr Johnson’s landslide victory “wished they had chosen to vote differently and are beating themselves up”.

He told MPs: “The reality is that my friends should not have been put in such an invidious position.”

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle had opened the debate by imploring MPs to “sort out the mess we’re in” as he said the standards row had brought out the “worst” in the Commons.