A cabinet minister has admitted it was “a mistake” for the government to attempt to overhaul parliament’s disciplinary processes in combination with saving a Conservative MP from immediate suspension.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News that ministers had reflected on the “conflation” of ripping up the current standards system with the case of Owen Paterson.
“It was right to separate the two things out, that was the mistake and I think it was right to reflect and return to parliament and correct that,” he said.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Conservative MPs to pass a motion in favour of blocking a recommended 30-day suspension for Mr Paterson, who had been found to have broken lobbying rules, while the standards system was rethought.
But, following a huge backlash that saw the government accused of “corruption”, Number 10 performed a U-turn less than 24 hours later with the promise of a new vote on Mr Paterson’s suspension.
Mr Zahawi told Sky News: “I think the mistake… is the conflation of creating a fairer system, with the right of appeal for parliamentarians to be able to put forward effectively an appeal process, and then conflating that with a particular case of Owen Paterson was a mistake.
“Upon reflection, yes it was a mistake and I think it was right to come back very quickly to the House and say ‘look we need to separate those two things out’.
“We should work on a cross-party basis to create a fairer system, I think that’s a good thing.
“And my appeal to my fellow parliamentarians from all parties is, look, let’s come together and create a better system with the right of appeal.”
Following the climbdown by ministers, Mr Paterson announced his resignation to leave the “cruel world of politics”.
The 65-year-old, who has been an MP for 24 years, was last month found by parliament’s independent sleaze investigator to have broken lobbying rules during his £110,000-a-year private sector work.
But Mr Paterson vehemently disputed the findings and declared himself “not guilty”.
His resignation will now trigger a by-election in his North Shropshire seat, which he won for the Conservatives with a near-23,000 majority at the 2019 general election.
Asked by Sky News if he accepted Mr Paterson had acted wrongly in his work for Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a meat processor and distributor, Mr Zahawi said: “The [parliamentary standards] commissioner had investigated and come back on the investigation around what Owen Paterson was doing in terms of his work for two companies.
“The prime minister has always been clear paid lobbying is wrong. We need to separate those two things out, as I say.
“The thing to focus on is not the particular case but to focus on creating a fairer system with the right of appeal for all parliamentarians.”
Mr Zahawi pointed to his “collective responsibility” as a cabinet minister for voting in favour of blocking Mr Paterson’s immediate suspension this week.
“We voted because I thought actually improving the system and introducing the right of appeal, as you would have in many sectors of the economy, in many professions people have a right of appeal, I think your viewers would understand there is a fairness argument here,” he said.
Mr Paterson has previously said the investigation into his private sector work “undoubtedly played a major role” in his wife, Rose Paterson, taking her own life in June last year.
In his resignation statement, the former environment secretary revealed his children had asked him to leave politics in order to prevent his wife’s memory from becoming “a political football”.
Mr Zahawi said the public would “make their own judgement” on Mr Paterson, adding: “All I would say is that its worth remembering there is a family here concerned who have just lost a mother, there are children and of course Owen himself, but the public will make up their own mind on this.”
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