PM under pressure after skipping sleaze debate and minister admitted Gov made 'mistake'

9 November 2021, 06:10 | Updated: 9 November 2021, 06:35

In the Prime Minister's absence, Steve Barclay admitted the Government had made a mistake
In the Prime Minister's absence, Steve Barclay admitted the Government had made a mistake. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

The Prime Minister is under increasing pressure after a minister admitted the Government made a "mistake" by attempting to change standards rules to prevent a Tory MP from being suspended.

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Boris Johnson skipped an emergency Commons debate on Parliament's standards system on Monday, leaving it to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, to respond on behalf of the Government - who publicly admitted it had been an error for ministers to seek to rip up the current rules last week.

Mr Barclay said: "I'd like, first and foremost, to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week."

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Whilst he added that there were valid concerns with the way allegations of wrongdoing by MPs are probed, he said the issue should have been kept separate from Owen Paterson's case, saying: "We recognise there are concerns across the House over the standards system and also the process by which possible breaches of the code of conduct are investigated.

"Yet whilst sincerely held concerns clearly warrant further attention, the manner in which the Government approached last week's debate conflated them with the response to an individual case."

The fiery debate also saw former chief whip Mark Harper call on the Prime Minister to apologise for his handling of the sleaze row, and more recently elected Tories expressed their dissatisfaction with Downing Street's attitude.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle had opened the debate by imploring MPs to "sort out the mess we're in" as he said the standards row had brought out the "worst" in the Commons.

Calls to apologise also came from his own backbenches, as Mr Harper pressed Mr Johnson to own up to his errors.

"If on occasion, as on this occasion... the team captain gets it wrong, then I think he should come and apologise to the public and to this House," said the former Cabinet minister.

"That's the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership."

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Several Tories from the 2019 intake joined in speaking out about the sleaze row during the Commons debate, with one MP admitting they had endured a "miserable time" since last week's vote.

Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme who rebelled to oppose the amendment on Wednesday that would have delayed Mr Paterson's suspension, said many of his colleagues who were elected during Mr Johnson's landslide victory "wished they had chosen to vote differently and are beating themselves up".

He told MPs: "The reality is that my friends should not have been put in such an invidious position."

Instead of attending the debate Mr Johnson was visiting a North East hospital - something he said was a "long-standing" commitment.

But he was accused of "running scared" after reports suggested he was back in London by about 5pm - leaving him plenty of time to attend the debate in the Commons, which went on until 7pm.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of failing to have the "decency" to address the Commons in person.

"Rather than repairing the damage that he's done, the Prime Minister is running scared," said Sir Keir.

Speaking to broadcasters at the visit, Mr Johnson refused to apologise despite being asked repeatedly if he would do so.

He instead argued there were "long-standing concerns amongst MPs" about the way standards probes were handled.

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Former MP Owen Paterson was investigated by the Commons Standards Committee, and two weeks ago was found to have committed an "egregious" breach of the centuries-old ban on paid lobbying by MPs.

The Committee recommended a six-week suspension - but rather than approving it, as is standard, Tory MPs were instead ordered to vote for a new committee to consider an altered system of appeals, essentially letting the North Shropshire MP off the hook.

The move spawned outrage, with ministers backtracking only hours later and Mr Paterson - who had been an MP for 24 years - resigning shortly afterwards, blaming the "cruel world of politics".