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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Government U-Turns On Plans To Rip Up Standards System For MPs After Major Backlash

Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed the government was rowing back from reforms to the standards procedure after a backlash (Parliamentlive.TV)

5 min read

The government is backing away from controversial plans to overhaul the system for ruling on MP misconduct after a huge backlash.

Last night the government voted to pass an amendment to set up a new appeals panel to the standards procedure after it was recommended former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson be suspended for 30 days for breaking lobbying rules.

The vote deferred a decision on Paterson, which could trigger a recall vote and a by-election in the veteran MP's North Shropshire seat.

But following 24 hours of furious backlash, from the Conservative party and opposition alike, the Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said the government will now go back to the drawing board on reforms to Standards procedures. 

Downing Street has now confirmed they will bring a motion back to the House "as soon as possible" to reverse everything approved yesterday, which will also allow MPs to vote on the recommendations by the Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone on Paterson. 

Rees-Mogg told MPs the government wanted to proceed on a “cross-party basis”, and that it was clear the previously proposed changes did not have such support.

Labour and the SNP had said they would actively boycott the new system. 

"The House voted very clearly yesterday to show that it is worried about the process of handling these complaints and that we would like an appeals system, but the change would need to be on a cross-party basis and that is clearly not the case," Rees-Mogg told the Commons this morning. 

"While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or apply retrospectively.

"I fear last night's debate conflated an individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken."We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions."

The Commons leader said he was minded to follow the process which led to the setting up of Parliament's Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme in the review of the standards procedure.

While today's government U-turn will be welcomed by many who opposed the reforms, there has been frustration over the shambolic way in which the last two days have played out. 

"The whole thing has been like watching a slow motion car crash and most of us have been cringing at every new development,” a senior government source told PoliticsHome. 

They believed the "conflation" of a desire to reform the standards process with the specific case of Paterson was a "huge strategic error" by Downing Street and "deeply problematic". 

MPs were under a three-line whip to vote in favour of the standards reforms yesterday, which the source described as "a dangerous – and unnecessary – abuse of personal and party loyalty". 

Labour’s shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said the government's "pathetic attempt to hide from their actions doesn't fix anything", and said MPs must now vote to uphold the sanctions against Paterson.

"Any other result will allow Boris Johnson to create one rule for Tory MPs, another for everyone else," she added.

MPs voted 250 – 232 in favour of pausing the process of approving Paterson’s suspension yesterday afternoon, despite Stone finding he had breached advocacy rules on multiple occasions between October 2016 and February 2020 by approaching ministers and government departments on behalf of two private companies.

Her report was passed to the cross-party standards committee, who said the ex-environment secretary’s actions were “an egregious case of paid advocacy” and the repeated use of his “privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant” brought Parliament into disrepute.

But Paterson has flatly rejected Stone’s finding and denies any wrongdoing, arguing he only ever reached out to ministers to raise good faith concerns about food standards.

He has suggested she should consider her position as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, something echoed this morning by the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

"It's difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact we are reviewing the process and overturning and trying to reform this whole process," he told Sky News. 

"But it's up to the commissioner to decide her position."

Debbonaire accused the government of "trying to bully" Stone out of her position, and Labour MP Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee, compared their behaviour to that of the Kremlin.

“That's not what we do in this country, it’s what they do in Russia when a friend or a foe is suddenly under the cosh in the courts," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Despite a three-line whip for Tory MPs to vote in favour of the amendment 13 defied the government to vote against, with many more abstaining.

One of those who didn't vote was Angela Richardson, who later revealed last night she had been sacked from her role as an unpaid assistant to levelling up secretary Michael Gove

But after today's U-turn she said she has now been reinstated, tweeting: "Pleased to be reappointed to my role as PPS to Michael Gove. Busy department and work to get on with."

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