An ethics adviser to Boris Johnson has suggested the Prime Minister failed to uphold principles on standards by blocking a senior Tory’s immediate suspension through an overhaul of the disciplinary system.
Lord Evans, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said the move to block former minister Owen Paterson’s six-week ban was a “very serious and damaging moment for Parliament”.
And the former MI5 chief criticised the Tory-led review into the disciplinary process for MPs as being “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”.
The Government was facing allegations of “corruption” after Mr Johnson ordered Conservatives not to back the cross-party Standards Committee’s call for Mr Paterson’s suspension.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng stoked further outrage by suggesting independent standards commissioner Kathryn Stone should resign after finding Mr Paterson repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.
Lord Evans, whose panel advises the Prime Minister on upholding ethical standards in public life, issued an extraordinary criticism of the vote held on Wednesday.
“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,” he told an Institute for Government event.
“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.
“The political system in this country does not belong to one party or even to one Government, it is a common good that we have all inherited from our forebears and that we all have a responsibility to preserve and to improve.”
Lord Evans went on to suggest Mr Johnson and others may have fallen foul of the Nolan principles on public life, which are contained within the ministerial code.
“The seven principles of public life that all governments have espoused for over 25 years require that ministers and MPs should show leadership in upholding ethical standards in public life,” he said.
“I find it hard to see how yesterday’s actions in any way meet that test.”
Lord Evans said the review of the standards process was “deeply flawed” and “extraordinarily inappropriate” and said he was not surprised that opposition parties are boycotting it.
Meanwhile, ministers were accused of trying to “bully” the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards out of her job after Mr Kwarteng suggested she should consider her position.
“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,” the Business Secretary told Sky News.
Pushed on what he meant by “decide her position”, Mr Kwarteng said: “It’s up to her to do that. I mean, it’s up to anyone where they’ve made a judgment and people have sought to change that, to consider their position, that’s a natural thing, but I’m not saying she should resign.”
Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire called for the Prime Minister to “immediately distance himself from these latest attempts to poison British politics”.
“Having already ripped up the rules policing MPs’ behaviour to protect one of their own, it is appalling that this corrupt Government is now trying to bully the standards commissioner out of her job,” the Labour MP added.
Mr Kwarteng said that the Government’s decision to order its MPs to change the rules to spare a colleague did not look “sleazy” as he rejected the mounting criticism.
Chris Bryant, chairman of the cross-party Commons Standards Committee, had said the Conservatives’ move was a “perversion of justice”.
“That is 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,” the Labour MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
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”.
“These shameful attempts to drag the standards commissioner through the mud have to be called out for what they truly are – an attack on our democracy,” she added.
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.
Angela Richardson was sacked as a parliamentary private secretary to Cabinet minister Michael Gove after she abstained.
With the Prime Minister ordering his MPs to back the move on Wednesday, it was passed with a majority of 18.
Mr Paterson said it would allow him to clear his name after “two years of hell” and called for the resignation of Ms Stone and others responsible for the recommendation against him.
“Sadly they have not done a good job and come up with a rotten report which is full of inaccuracies… (they) all have to go,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.
Anti-corruption campaigners and unions also condemned the Government’s actions, with Labour accusing the Tories of “wallowing in sleaze”.
The row was triggered when Ms Stone recommended a ban from Parliament of 30 sitting days for Mr Paterson in a report subsequently approved by the Commons Standards Committee, which described the lobbying as “egregious”.
Ms Stone’s investigation found he repeatedly lobbied on behalf of two companies for which he was acting as a paid consultant – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
Mr Paterson claimed the investigation was unfairly conducted and said the manner in which it was carried out played a “major role” in his wife Rose’s suicide last year.