Owen Paterson: Boris Johnson accused of ‘return to 1990s Tory sleaze’ as he backs bid to save ex-minister from Commons suspension

Boris Johnson will back a bid to save a Conservative former minister from an immediate suspension as part of an overhaul of MPs’ standards rules, Sky News understands.

Ex-cabinet minister Owen Paterson is facing a 30-day suspension from the House of Commons for breaching lobbying rules due to his paid consultancy work on behalf of two companies.

But Mr Paterson strongly denies the allegations and a group of his Tory colleagues are seeking to establish a new Commons committee to reconsider his case.

Sky News understands the prime minister will support the effort by backbench Conservatives in a likely Commons vote on Wednesday afternoon.

Ex-cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, a former leader of the House of Commons, had already secured the support of more than 50 Tory MPs for an amendment to a Commons motion on Mr Paterson’s suspension, which will now also be supported by the government.

The group of Tory MPs backing Ms Leadsom’s amendment was already likely to have been large enough to win a Commons vote to pause Mr Paterson’s suspension even without the government’s support.

A government source said concerns about the standards system had been “bubbling away for a while” and that Mr Paterson’s case was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

“The fact that this amendment has been tabled by a former leader of the House and has attached as many signatures as it has, shows the amount of concern about the standards process,” they added.

“It has to be taken seriously.”

Ms Leadsom’s amendment, if approved in a Commons vote later on Wednesday, would see the creation of a new Commons committee.

The nine-person committee, with a Conservative majority and led by Tory ex-cabinet minister John Whittingdale, would then review the current standards system and consider whether the case against Mr Paterson should be rethought.

Last month, Mr Paterson was found to have “repeatedly used his privileged position” to benefit Randox, a clinical diagnostics company, and Lynn’s Country Foods, a meat processor and distributor.

The allegations against the North Shropshire MP, who was environment secretary from 2012 to 2014, relate to his conduct between October 2016 and February 2020.

Following a two-year investigation, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, said Mr Paterson had breached rules prohibiting paid advocacy by making multiple approaches to government departments and ministers for the two companies.

Ms Stone recommended Mr Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for a month, a punishment that needs to be approved by MPs in a vote on Wednesday’s motion – which Ms Leadsom and her colleagues are now seeking to amend.

Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, accused Mr Johnson of encouraging government ministers to “vote for a return to the worst of the 1990s Tory sleaze culture”.

She said: “A vote for this amendment would turn the clock back to the era of Neil Hamilton, cash for questions and no independent standards process.

“Let’s not forget that the cross-party standards committee, including three Tory MPs, endorsed the commissioner’s 30-day sanction for a breach of the rule around paid advocacy.”

Her fellow Labour shadow minister, Jess Phillips, said: “Government are not meant to whip MPs on such matters. Every MP makes their decision alone and they must be held accountable for that.

“One notes they were fine about the standards system until their pal was in trouble.”

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