Paterson saga shows political system in need of serious repair

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The writer was MP for Tatton from 1997 to 2001

So the ‘sleaze’, better defined as the use of a public position for private gain, is back in British politics, an unwelcome guest returning after a not-so-long vacation.

My personal connection with sleaze was accidental. In 1996, I was nearing the end of a long career as a BBC foreign correspondent and war reporter when it emerged that a Tory MP, Neil Hamilton, was accused of receiving news. cash in brown envelopes as payment for alleged activities in parliament on Mohamed’s behalf. Al-Fayed, then owner of Harrods. Authorities in the House of Commons had investigated him, but had not yet released their report, when a general election was called. The main opposition parties, Labor and Liberal Democrats, came up with the idea of ​​withdrawing their candidates in favor of a policy independent from the outside and acceptable to both. I was so independent.

It was a tall order. Hamilton defended the majority of nearly 16,000 in one of England’s most secure Conservative seats. My friends in the press assured me that I was doomed to lose and I tended to believe them. The campaign was – how to put it? – vigorous in the extreme. To my surprise, I won with a majority of 11,000. And I served in the House of Commons, as the only independent member, for the next four years.

It was a perch that included a seat on the Standards Committee, which investigates complaints against MPs accused of breaking the rules – usually, by receiving payment for their parliamentary activities. It gave me insight into the practice of politics and illuminated a system that – then like today – seemed in need of serious repair.

Is the House of Commons Institutionally Corrupt? In general, I don’t think so. But does it have the potential for corruption? Yes, and that’s what I’ve seen in the Standards Committee – and we’ve seen it more recently.

The House of Commons is an assembly of 650 of the most ambitious people in the country. They tend not to see themselves as others see them. To avoid trouble, I designed what I called “the Knutsford Guardian Test”, named after the main newspaper in my constituency. Whatever I have done, whatever I have said inside or outside the House, whatever causes I have supported, even where I have been on vacation, I would ask: what would that look like on the front page of this newspaper?

As for lobbying, it is an integral part of politics. As a member of Parliament, I lobbied the government on behalf of the salt industry because I had a salt mine in my riding; and on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry, because the AstraZeneca research center was also part of the constituency. Lobbying only becomes corruption when money changes hands.

In the case of Owen Paterson, the MP for North Shropshire, the money changed hands – over £ 500,000. The all-party standards committee concluded it had flagrantly broken the rules and recommended a thirty-day suspension of the House. Then something extraordinary happened, which had never happened during my tenure as an MP. The government tried to come to Paterson’s aid and block his suspension. It was a misguided and inept intervention that showed the House of Commons at its worst. The government eventually changed course under pressure from an outraged press and public, and Paterson duly resigned.

In my opinion, Paterson’s resignation argues for the passage of a less convincing all-party anti-sleaze candidate in the upcoming North Shropshire by-elections. But I am confident that, like the sordid scandals of the 1990s in Tatton and beyond, this case will resonate with the electorate, unlike other Tory setbacks.

The current disciplinary system is by no means perfect, but far better than the “fill your boots, boys” era that preceded it. If this is to be changed, it must be done by inter-party consensus and not unilaterally by the governing party – an impudence that should never have been attempted. A toughening of the rules must include an absolute ban on MPs lobbying or even advising any business or organization.

We also have a particularly British form of corruption, which is very present lately, which is the sale of honors to fund political parties. The attribution of these trinkets has become so outrageous that they might as well issue a rate card for it: so much for a peerage, so much for a knight title, and so much for a lowly MBE.

The current scandals will have served a purpose if they lead to a new and necessary fight against corruption.


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