David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
For a couple of years, I worked closely with Owen Paterson on the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland. He was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and keen to create the conditions in which the private sector could flourish in the province. I was a junior Treasury Minister who favoured a downward pressure on corporation tax (complementing what we were doing at the UK level). We succeeded in legislating to devolve the power although, when it came down to it, the complexities of Northern Irish politics meant that the power has never been used.
I am not one of Paterson’s tribe, but I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He set himself a clear objective, and threw himself into it with energy and tenacity. His enthusiasm was infectious, driven by the sincere belief that he was doing good.
Not unrelated to this, I found him immensely likeable. Generous, collegiate, appreciative of support, entertaining company; he was a good man to have on your side. At the risk of attracting accusations of naivety, I do not think he is a bad man. In the work that he has committed to do on suicide prevention, I suspect he will go on to do a great deal of good.
I mention this experience because the attributes that struck me most about him – his likeability and single-minded determination – are critical in understanding recent events, and the end of his Parliamentary career.
Let us start with his likeability. He has many close friends in the House of Commons and in the wider conservative movement. In particular, in the trench warfare of recent years, strong tribal loyalties formed. The Conservative Parliamentary party fragmented but, within different factions, very strong bonds of affection and mutual support were formed.
This was strengthened amongst the “Spartans” (of whom Paterson was one) by the sense that the “Establishment” was against them. That sense has manifested itself in recent events with the accusation that the Parliamentary Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, has treated Brexiteers unduly harshly. He had influential and vociferous supporters who sought to protect him.
Their advice only strengthened Paterson’s already substantial resolve. The second relevant attribute – his enthusiastic determination to pursue a given objective – has been evident throughout this saga. The problem, and there is no getting away from this, is that this determination has been consistently misdirected and misguided.
It began with the repeated occasions when Paterson communicated with various Ministers and public bodies on behalf of companies that were paying him. His defence appears to be that he was acting in the public interest, because the points that were being raised by these companies and the services offered by these companies were in the public interest.
I do not doubt Paterson’s sincerity in holding these beliefs, but it is a very weak argument to claim that this was justification for breaching the prohibition on paid advocacy for MPs. All companies, after all, provide services to customers and only obtain revenue if customers consider that they benefit from it. If MPs are able to argue that it is acceptable to lobby Ministers on behalf of companies that could provide services to Government because the Government would benefit, there would be no effective prohibition on paid advocacy whatsoever.
Throughout this process, there is no evidence that Paterson has understood this point or truly understood how the rules restricted his behaviour. He did not think that he was breaking the rules, but he very obviously was.
Having reached an erroneous understanding of the position, the single-minded determination that enabled him to be an effective Minister also resulted in him going seriously awry. One representation on behalf his employees was followed by another, without any appreciation of the risks he was taking. And when challenged on his behaviour, he could not see how he had done wrong.
It has been frequently observed in recent days that had Paterson accepted his punishment and showed some contrition, his career could have continued. He was a popular local MP, and he has much sympathy after the death of his wife. It was unlikely (before the events of last Wednesday) that he would have been recalled and, had he done so, he would have comfortably won any by-election.
All this is true, but one can see why he did not. It is not in his nature and, in these particular circumstances, accepting responsibility for behaving wrongly means accepting some responsibility for all that has flowed from the investigation. That must be an awful prospect.
Whatever the reasons, Paterson ploughed on. He was innocent and the process at fault. The Commissioner was biased, witnesses were not called, he did not have a chance to make his case, there was no appeal, and it was all an affront to natural justice. But, once again, these arguments were paper-thin as Chris Bryant subsequently demonstrated in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Thin those these arguments were, they were sufficient to rally round his friends in the Parliamentary party and The Daily Telegraph . Between them they came up with the proposal to review the whole disciplinary system whilst putting on hold Paterson’s suspension.
It was a preposterous and dangerous solution. To change the rules in this way because the process has come up with the “wrong” answer in a specific case and to use a Parliamentary majority to undermine scrutiny risked undermining the reputation of all MPs. It was an abuse of power.
Remarkably, the Prime Minister supported it. A debate now rages about his motivation – genuine concern about the process, loyalty to a friend, a sense of being beholden to the Right of the Parliamentary party, an opportunistic attempt to undermine the threat to him from the Parliamentary Commissioner or a combination of factors? Whatever the reason, the result was that Conservative MPs were whipped to support the unsupportable and defend the indefensible.
The position collapsed on Thursday morning and Paterson’s Parliamentary career ended on Thursday afternoon.
It is a sorry tale. An original position that failed to understand the realities of the situation and the risks that were being taken; a dogmatic refusal to seek compromise or accept responsibility; group-think on the Right of the Conservative Party and its media cheerleaders that made a difficult situation worse; a Prime Minister either beholden to the Right or exploiting them (quite possibly both); a willingness to destroy or weaken those institutions that provide checks and balances within our constitution; a requirement on Conservative MPs to support an untenable and irresponsible position; a Government acting outside the constraints of normal behaviour.
Sounds familiar? These things never end well.