Boris Johnson makes U-turn over anti-sleaze regime for MPs

MPs are expected to get another vote as soon as next week on suspending the Conservative MP Owen Paterson from the Commons, after Boris Johnson made a U-turn and ditched immediate plans to overhaul the standards system.

Following a wave of anger from within his own party and allegations of “Tory sleaze”, the prime minister retreated. He signalled that he would not go ahead with a new committee chaired by a Conservative MP to review the case and wider sanctions policy, given that opposition politicians had vowed to boycott it.

A motion trying to reverse Wednesday night’s vote is expected to be held next week before the Commons goes into recess, when further details will be set out of how changes to the standards system will be taken forward on a cross-party basis.

The standards commissioner and committee recommended Paterson’s suspension from parliament for 30 days for an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, and he will face another fight for his political future. If the suspension is approved, it will trigger a recall petition – meaning if 10% of Paterson’s North Shropshire constituents back a byelection, one will be called.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, admitted the motion passed on Wednesday night had “created a certain amount of controversy” and “conflated the individual case with the general concern” that there was not an appeals process for MPs who felt the punishment they faced was unfair.

He said the government wanted to “achieve improvements in our system for future cases”, but that after Labour and the SNP vowed to boycott the new committee established to review the system for scrutinising MPs’ wrongdoing, he realised cross-party consensus had not been achieved.

Rees-Mogg promised to “bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions”.

“We’re in a quagmire now,” said Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and chair of the standards committee. He suggested the committee create a duplicate report suggesting the same sanction for Paterson when it meets next Tuesday, to be put to the Commons for another vote, to separate out the specific case from the general issue.

Tory MPs unleashed fury on Wednesday by backing an amendment by the former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom that set up a new committee chaired by the Conservative backbencher John Whittingdale to review the handling of Paterson’s case and the whole standards system.

On Thursday, a government source told the Guardian: “The one proposed last night is not viable.”

Tory MPs had been put on a three-line whip and a parliamentary private secretary lost her job after abstaining in the vote, which the government won narrowly.

Mark Harper, a former chief whip who was one of only 13 Conservatives to vote against the Leadsom amendment, tweeted: “This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a member of parliament. My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this. This must not happen again.”

One backbencher who reluctantly supported the Leadsom amendment told the Guardian afterwards: “I really regret it.” Another said: “I have never heard ministers go through the lobby saying out loud ‘this is absolute madness’. The chief whip needs to go for this.” A frontbencher called it a “fucking disgrace and huge party mismanagement”. “Another day, another unforced error,” sighed another.

Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow leader of the Commons, said: “The government’s pathetic attempt to hide from their actions doesn’t fix anything. Last night, they voted to allow corruption to take place unimpeded at the heart of British politics. MPs must now vote to uphold the sanctions against Owen Paterson. Any other result will allow Boris Johnson to create one rule for Tory MPs, another for everyone else.”

Opposition politicians accused ministers of setting up a “kangaroo court” and acting like Russia. Whittingdale admitted on Wednesday night it would “prove challenging” to move forward with a committee with only Tory MPs prepared to sit on it, but he said the Commons had “passed a motion that clearly needs to be acted on”.

Johnson’s spokesperson will face questions about the U-turn and Paterson’s future in a briefing with journalists on Thursday afternoon.