A cabinet minister has dismissed the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal as a “Westminster storm in a teacup” and admitted a “frustration” that the row has shifted focus from the COP26 climate change summit.
Environment Secretary George Eustice became the latest cabinet minister to admit to a “mistake” in the government’s handling of the row over Mr Paterson’s £110,000 a year private sector work.
But, speaking to Sky News, Mr Eustice denied that the government was now mired in “sleaze” allegations.
However, Labour frontbencher Thangham Debbonaire branded ministers’ efforts to block a House of Commons suspension for Mr Paterson over his breach of lobbying rules as “Tory sleaze plain and simple” and said it had left the government’s reputation “in tatters”.
She told Sky News that the position of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, was now “untenable” following his actions this week and also called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “consider his position”.
The prime minister has this weekend left Downing Street for his Chequers country retreat as his government continues to face a backlash over its attempts to save Mr Paterson from a 30-day ban from the Commons.
The row has seen the Conservatives branded “corrupt” by opposition politicians.
But, asked if the government was now in trouble over “sleaze” claims, Mr Eustice told the Trevor Phillips On Sunday Show: “I know you may put it to me that way, others – opposition leaders and so on, and opposition politicians – will no doubt say that, but I don’t agree.
“I’ve been up here in Glasgow at COP, where some really big decisions are being taken, big, important decisions around the world on a big challenge like climate change.
“What we’ve seen is a sort of Westminster storm in a teacup, if I may say so.
“Yes, we made a mistake in bringing that forward in the way that we did, so we withdrew it.
“But the overall principle that you should have due process and a right of appeal in these types of situations, I don’t think anybody doubts.”
The row over the government’s efforts to block an immediate House of Commons suspension for Mr Paterson – who has now since quit as an MP – has dominated discussions at Westminster this week, at the same time as the prime minister is trying get other nations to agree to climate commitments at COP26.
Mr Eustice acknowledged that “anyone in politics” has a “frustration” that “the really big important things that you’re doing, that you’re making progress on, policy agendas at work, are rarely deemed newsworthy”.
“The news agenda will always focus on small, often – as I said – storms in a teacup and Westminster row,” he added.
Ms Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow leader of the House of Commons, branded the row over Mr Paterson as “Tory sleaze plain and simple”.
She called on the prime minister to rule out Mr Paterson being recommended for a peerage, as has been speculated, following his resignation as an MP.
Ms Debbonaire also told Sky News that the position of Mr Rees-Mogg, who this week wrote to all Conservative MPs urging them to block Mr Paterson’s suspension, was “untenable”.
“If I were him, I would be considering my position,” she said.
The Labour frontbencher also called on the prime minister to “consider his position” over a row which had left the government and Mr Johnson with their reputation “in tatters”.
“He [Mr Johnson] does seem to have form here, there’s a pattern of behaviour,” she added.
“If we go back to the illegal prorogation of parliament, for instance, that was an astonishing thing for any lawmaker to support, let alone the prime minister to lead on.
“We are lawmakers, we should not be law breakers. We should be upholding a system of standards.
“I think the public knows how to judge.
“I think the public can see that this week Tory MPs, led by the Tory prime minister, tried to protect someone who’d been found guilty of doing things that an MP should never do, which is take a very large amount of money for a very large amount of access.
“I think their reputation, frankly, is in tatters and I hope that Boris Johnson also considers his position this weekend and takes the steps he needs to to repair the reputation that’s he’s damaged, the reputation of politics.”
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