Today’s debate was, in many ways, a public advert for why the good guys always lose, even when they win. Why, really, would Boris Johnson turn up?
It was, in many ways, a public advert for why the good guys always lose, even when they win. Why, really, would Boris Johnson turn up?
The House of Commons was meeting to discuss the outrageous events of last week, and what can be done to improve “parliamentary standards”. The Lib Dem MP Wendy Chamberlain, who secured the debate, wasted no time in likening what happened in Westminster last week to what you’d expect from the Duma in Russia. But, on the bald facts of the case, there is arguably nowhere with a tale whose outrages come with such pantomime absurdity.
It’s not merely that the Conservative Party tried to kick out the standards commissioner and overturn her ruling, rather than have one of their own, Owen Paterson, accept the punishment handed out to him, for his “egregious” breaking of the rules on lobbying. It’s that Mr Paterson’s case was, many Tory MPs privately think, deliberately deployed by the prime minister as ammunition to take down the standards commissioner, and in so doing, take down her ongoing investigations into the prime minister himself.
One of those investigations genuinely does involve how the prime minister paid for his golden wallpaper at £800 a roll. It is straight from the pages of absurdist fantasy, except that it is all true.
So yes, why would Boris Johnson bother to turn up? Owen Paterson, of course, wasn’t there either. He resigned in disgrace on Thursday. If he’d just taken his punishment, instead of acquiesce to this ridiculous and disgraceful scheme to get him, but mainly Boris Johnson, off the hook, things would certainly have worked out rather differently.
Paterson is just the latest person to be ruined by association with the prime minister. All who enter his orbit end up this way. Families, actual nations (this one is unlikely to be unbroken by Brexit for a very long time to come), and as of now, more certainly than ever, politics itself.
It shouldn’t need stating, but it does, that the very vast majority of MPs are decent people, even if 250 of them did vote for the sham amendment last week. And, naturally, large numbers of those decent people turned up to debate the problem at hand: the outrageous failings of a small number of their colleagues, who, naturally, didn’t bother to turn up themselves.
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Labour and the Lib Dems took it in turn to attack the government. They could hardly have left themselves more open to it, and they could hardly have been more deserving of it. It is still hoped that this terrible business might pave the way for meaningful reform on second jobs held by MPs. But such reform will almost certainly never come. The old boring arguments remain true – that large numbers of MPs do maintain second jobs, and they do have a right to as well. It’s not merely that quite a few of them are doctors, nurses, and yes, lawyers, who must maintain their credentials. It’s also that, well, it’s a democracy. There’s not really an HR department to speak of. There is no consultation process with the voters. They just sling you out.
The rules are already there. They’re clear to see. The problem is getting the people who, ordinarily, make the rules for the rest of us to abide by the ones they set for themselves. And it’s not merely that they failed. It’s that when they were caught, having failed, they decided instead, to just tear up the rule book.
MPs can debate it as much as they like, they can tweak the guidance, the advice, and the regulations, but straightforward 10th dan black belt malfeasance will always find a way, just as it will always find a hospital in Northumberland instead of its own moral conscience.