Zahawi concedes 'mistakes' were made in handling of Owen Paterson sleaze shambles

5 November 2021, 07:58 | Updated: 5 November 2021, 11:44

By Daisy Stephens

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has told LBC that "mistakes" were made by the government after Owen Paterson was found to have broken lobbying rules by a standards committee.

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"The Prime Minister has always been clear that paid lobbying is wrong," the minister told Nick Ferrari at breakfast.

"I think the mistake - and I think it was quite right for the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg, upon reflection, to return to the house yesterday and explain that - actually, the drive to try to create a better and fairer system with a right of appeal should not have been conflated with a specific case involving Owen Paterson, and that was the mistake and I think it's right, when you reflect, that you act quickly... and correct it."

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Nick hit back by saying "whoever thought [linking the system overhaul to Mr Paterson's case] would work" needed to "consider another position", and asked Mr Zahawi if he agreed.

"I would respectfully disagree," said the Education Secretary.

"When reflecting that we shouldn't have conflated the two, Jacob Rees-Mogg came back to the house and said 'look, that was a mistake, let's correct this now'."

He appealed to MPs from all parties to "create a fairer system with a right of appeal", saying it was "the right thing to do".

When asked by Nick who was to blame, Mr Zahawi said: "I take collective responsibility as a Government, and I think it's right that we say 'look, we made a mistake and we want to get this right', and of course the legislature ultimately has - I hope - a duty to create a better system that carries the confidence of the nation."

He also added that consideration was needed of the "human factor", saying: "We're all human beings, when you make a mistake I'd much rather have a Government and a Prime Minister and a Chief Whip who says 'hold on a second, let's go back because I think we've made a mistake here'.

"That makes me much more confident of the character of the people leading this country, than people who would have just ploughed on ahead regardless."

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When Nick put a recent YouGov poll to Mr Zahawi, which showed support for the Tories had fallen, the Education Secretary said the Government cannot be complacent in the face of perceptions of sleaze.

"I take from [the results of the poll] that we can't be complacent, that it was right to come back to Parliament and say we made a mistake," he said.

"I think actually people, listeners, participants in polls, will understand that it is only human when you know you've made a mistake to come back and say we made a mistake and we're going to correct it.

"And that we want a fairer system of appeals. They know that because it's right in other walks of life and other sectors of the economy.

"So I think it's the right thing to do, and of course, the really important poll would be the general election."

Mr Paterson was found to have broken lobbying rules by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and a six-week suspension was recommended.

But MPs voted to instead have a review of the Parliamentary disciplinary system - a decision that they U-turned on after intense backlash from politicians, including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who branded it "corruption" and deputy leader Angela Rayner who accused the Tories of "wallowing in sleaze".

Mr Paterson resigned shortly afterwards, describing the last two years as an "indescribable nightmare" and saying he wanted to leave the "cruel world of politics".

"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," he added.

Responding to the former MP's resignation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was "very sad" and described Mr Paterson as a "friend and colleague of mine for decades".