Boris Johnson is backing a bid to save a leading Conservative MP from an immediate suspension as part of an attempted overhaul in standards rules, reports say.
Government whips are said to be telling Tory MPs to today vote against imposing a 30-day suspension on Owen Paterson by backing an amendment motion arguing the probe into his behaviour was flawed.
Mr Paterson was found to have committed an “egregious” breach of standards rules as he lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.
MPs on the Committee on Standards recommended he be banned from the Commons for 30 days following the findings by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone.
But an amendment put forward by Tory MP Dame Andrea Leadsom ahead of a planned vote on the case on Wednesday would see the creation of a new committee examining – among other issues – whether the findings against Mr Paterson should be reviewed.
Several reports suggest the prime minister is backing Dame Andrea’s amendment and that Tory MPs will be told by government whips to back attempts to reform the standards procedures.
As part of Dame Andrea’s proposals, MPs on a new committee led by former Tory minister John Whittingdale would examine whether the system should mirror misconduct probes in other workplaces – including the right of representation and the right of appeal.
It would also look into whether Mr Paterson’s case specifically should be reviewed, with the new group expected to report back by February 2022.
One government source told Sky News that concern about the current standards committee had been “bubbling away for a while” and that Mr Paterson’s case was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
John Glen, a Treasury minister, did not deny government support for the move on Wednesday afternoon to save Mr Paterson from suspension, as he raised concerns that there must be “fair and due process” before disciplinary action.
But Labour condemned the Tory plan – warning against turning “the clock back to the era of Neil Hamilton, cash for questions and no independent standards process”.
Thangam Debbonaire, shadow Commons leader, said it appeared ministers wanted MPs to “vote for a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture”.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy also described the attempt to save Mr Paterson from suspension in the Commons as “the most appalling double standards”.
The Labour frontbencher added: “For all these Tories and, including now, it appears, the prime minister … is that it is one rule for everybody else and another rule for them. That’s just simply unacceptable.”
A senior Tory MP backing the bid to reform the Commons disciplinary rules and possibly spare colleague Mr Paterson from suspension admitted the move “looks terrible” but insisted there is “no alternative”.
Bernard Jenkin, who sits on the standards committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve had a bad system for years and years and years. I just see this as an opportunity to fix it.”
The standards commissioner’s investigation found Mr Paterson broke the rules by repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods – in an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.
Mr Paterson angrily disputed the findings of the report – claiming he had not been given a fair hearing. He also said the manner in which the investigation was carried out had “undoubtedly” played a “major role” in the decision of his wife Rose to take her own life last year.
On Tuesday, Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg expressed sympathy for Mr Paterson’s claim that the commissioner did not speak to 17 witnesses who came forward to support him, describing that decision as “interesting”.
Mr Rees-Mogg told his ConservativeHome podcast: “It is always very important that systems appear to be fair, and therefore if somebody has witnesses, it would normally appear to be fair that those witnesses should be heard.”
But Committee on Standards chairman Chris Bryant urged MPs to “read the report in full, with a fair and open mind” and warned against voting it down in what would be an unprecedented move in the committee’s 36-year history.
“This was a unanimous and cross-party report,” he said. “Voting or watering down the sanction would do serious reputational damage to parliament and would open politics up to a new scandal of paid lobbying by MPs.”
Ministers believe the move to review the standards system, if passed via Dame Andrea’s amendment today, could lead to the resignation of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone and the break-up of the existing standards committee, according to The Telegraph.
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is expected to select Dame Andrea’s amendment today, after clerks decided that it is within scope.
A separate amendment has been proposed by Tory MP Dr Julian Lewis saying that no further action should be taken “on compassionate ground”. It has been supported by fellow Conservatives William Wragg and Peter Bone.