Owen Paterson has resigned as an MP after Boris Johnson U-turned to allow a fresh vote on the former minister’s suspension for an alleged breach of lobbying rules.
The senior Tory announced his resignation on Thursday after the Prime Minister was forced into a retreat after preventing his immediate suspension by launching a review of the entire disciplinary system.
Johnson had supported an attempt by Paterson’s allies to review the sanction until opposition parties refused to take part in a “corrupt” Tory-led committee tasked with the review.
The Government whips were working to reschedule a vote on a six-week suspension for Paterson after he was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.
But rather than face what looked like a likely defeat, Paterson said he had made the “painful decision” to resign as the MP for North Shropshire, triggering a by-election after a high-profile sleaze row.
“The last two years have been an indescribable nightmare for my family and me,” the 65-year-old said in a statement.
“My integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned.
“I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.
“I, my family and those closest to me know the same. I am unable to clear my name under the current system.”
The seat is by no means a marginal, with Paterson having beaten Labour there in 2019 by nearly 23,000 votes but the by-election will undoubtedly feature allegations of sleaze.
Conservative MPs expressed anger over the affair after Johnson ordered them to back the controversial move just a day before his U-turn.
The climbdown came shortly after Lord Evans, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, condemned the plans as being “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”.
Moments later, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg announced ministers would seek “cross-party” changes to the system after acknowledging a “certain amount of controversy”.
He also said the “link needs to be broken” between reforms and the case of Paterson.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said ministers were “seeking to bring forward a vote in the House as soon as possible”.
A by-election could have been triggered if MPs approved the suspension and recall proceedings were launched, but Paterson beat them to the punch by resigning.
Sir Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to apologise to the nation for “grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend”.
The Labour leader said: “This has been an unbelievable 24 hours even by this Government’s chaotic standards.
“Only yesterday Boris Johnson was forcing his MPs to rip up the rules on standards in public life is a truly damning indictment of this Prime Minister and the corrupt Government he leads.
“Boris Johnson must now apologise to the entire country for this grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend.
“This isn’t the first time he’s done this but it must be the last.
“And Boris Johnson must explain how he intends to fix the immense harm he has done to confidence in the probity of him and his MPs.”
Conservatives had been ordered to vote for the controversial plans on Wednesday, leading to Angela Richardson being sacked as a parliamentary private secretary to Cabinet minister Michael Gove when she chose to abstain.
On Thursday she said she was “pleased to be reappointed” after the U-turn.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman insisted Johnson changed his approach when it became clear cross-party consensus “wasn’t going to be possible”.
But questions remained over the pace of his retreat because Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems had all vowed to boycott what deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner called the “corrupt committee” on Wednesday.
Mark Harper, who was one of 13 Tories to rebel to vote against the plans, said the affair was “one of the most unedifying episodes” he has seen during his 16 years in Parliament.
“My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this,” the former chief whip said.
“This must not happen again.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was sent out to defend the changes for the Government on Thursday morning.
Labour accused him of trying to “bully” the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone, who carried out the investigation into Mr Paterson, into resignation after suggesting she should consider her position.
Kwarteng told Sky News: “I think it’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, and we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process, but it’s up to the commissioner to decide her position.”
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain accused the Tories of “governing like the mafia” by “targeting those who uphold the rules rather than those who break them”.
It was not just opposition MPs who were outraged by the move, with dozens of Tories abstaining and 13 rebelling against orders to vote for a new committee led by former minister John Whittingdale, which would re-examine Mr Paterson’s case and whether a new standards system is needed.
Lord Evans, a former MI5 chief, told an Institute for Government event: “It cannot be right to propose an overhaul of the entire regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions in a very serious case of paid lobbying by an MP.
“And it cannot be right to propose that the standards system in the House of Commons should be reviewed by a select committee chaired by a member of the ruling party and with a majority of members from that same party.
“This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy.”