Johnson accused of corruption as he tears up system to fight Westminster sleaze

Critics hit out at effort to ‘weaken independent scrutiny’ with Keir Starmer saying Owen Paterson ‘not fit to serve as MP’

Boris Johnson tore up the independent system for combating sleaze in parliament on Wednesday as he threw the government’s weight behind protecting a Conservative MP who was found to have repeatedly breached lobbying rules. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, accused the prime minister of corruption after Johnson whipped his MPs to halt Owen Paterson’s parliamentary suspension and demand a review of the entire standards process to allow for appeals.

Scores of Tory MPs declined to back the prime minister, however, with several saying they had been deluged by angry messages from constituents. One Tory, Angela Richardson, MP for Guildford since 2019 and an aide to Michael Gove, confirmed she had departed from her role as a parliamentary aide after her decision to abstain. She tweeted: “I abstained … aware that my job was at risk, but it was a matter of principle for me.”

It comes as Johnson is himself facing what would be a fourth inquiry by Kathryn Stone – the parliamentary standards commissioner who recommended Paterson be suspended for 30 days for breaking lobbying rules – into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment. On a day of extraordinary drama in Westminster MPs voted by 250 to 232 to support a government-backed amendment to set aside the ruling against Paterson and overhaul the independent disciplinary system on Wednesday, which the prime minister claimed was a matter of “natural justice”.

The government’s majority was reduced from 79 to just 18, however, underlining the unhappiness of many Conservatives. The vote result was met with cries of “shame” from opposition MPs. After the vote, Paterson, who previously suggested the investigation into his conduct contributed to the death of his wife, Rose, said: “After two years of hell I now have the opportunity to clear my name.” He had previously protested his innocence to the commissioner.

Stone said via her spokesperson that she intended to remain in post until the end of her term in December 2022. In his most strongly-worded criticism of the prime minister to date, Starmer said protecting Paterson, and failing to throw out the Conservative MP Rob Roberts who was found to have harassed an aide, was corrupt.