Parliamentary privilege ain’t what it used to be

A cornerstone of parliamentary democracy is the concept of privilege – to protect MPs from external influence by ensuring that their actions can be challenged only in parliament (or at the ballot). If you think that the principle is old-fashioned, ask yourself how Russia’s legislature gets on.

While privilege has never been universal in its scope – in the UK or in its legislative outgrowths – a recent twist raises the eyebrow.

As long ago as 1995, in response to various scandals, the mother of parliaments agreed to create a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who – rather optimistically – is believed to be responsible for regulating MPs conduct and propriety.  

She found a former minister, Owen Paterson, to be guilty of an  “egregious” breach of lobbying rules.  Per the Guardian:

“The committee revealed Paterson had failed to declare his interest and used his parliamentary office on at least 16 occasions for business meetings with his clients between October 2016 and February 2020, and sent two letters relating to his business interests on taxpayer-funded Commons-headed notepaper.”

Paterson says the investigation was inaccurate, biased, breached standards of procedural fairness and, it would appear, reached pre-determined conclusions.

Right or wrong, his complaint gets to nub of the matter.  The Commissioner works with a parliamentary Standards Committee with unelected lay members (inevitably drawn from the establishment quango class which bobs around the centre of power) and with a built-in government minority.  Yet this hybrid political creature has inherited the mantle of parliamentary supremacy.  Paterson has neither the right to seek judicial review nor the judgement of his peers.

Fear of public reaction means the government of the day is reluctant to use its majority to over-rule the Committee and Commissioner.  But in this particular case, Boris Johnson’s government decided that the findings were sufficiently, well, egregious for them to do so, and then press on with needed reforms to the reform.

However, the howls of media protest frightened – or perhaps encouraged – enough Tory MPs to force the government to cut Mr Paterson loose.  He will resign from Parliament.  The government will look for cross-party support for reform.

It is certainly not easy these days for an MP to get the benefit of the public’s current standards on victimhood.  The media has been wary of giving coverage to his wife’s suicide during the affair, and Labour MPs in the house – perhaps carried away by the intensity of the moment – came close to mockery, when Boris Johnson drew attention to it.

It will be interesting to see if Paterson is enough of a glutton for punishment to seek some novel redress through the courts, once he is no longer an MP.  But while they have shown marked willingness in recent years to scrutinise unfair parliamentary and executive privilege, they are not completely insensitive to populist opinion.

Meanwhile, Boris needs to reflect on what this episode says about the divisions in his Conservative parliamentary party, reflecting febrile political conditions, debates over ‘Conservatism’ and even the continuing impact of the party’s Brexit split.

And MPs everywhere considering fancy schemes like this one for shedding responsibility by sharing power, might recall that everyone hates your privileges and there was a reason why Machiavelli thought it was better to be feared than to be loved.

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