Boris Johnson's blunders over Owen Paterson affair risk putting wind in SNP's sails – John McLellan

Surveying the wreckage left by this week’s Westminster standards debacle and the subsequent resignation of Owen Paterson MP, two well-worn political cliches spring to mind.

Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference at the COP26 climate change summit (Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference at the COP26 climate change summit (Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Firstly, that publicity is the best disinfectant and secondly, that perception is everything. The government’s decision to press ahead with a review of the system of which Mr Paterson fell foul and effectively to suspend his sentence suggests the former was ignored and the latter entirely misjudged.

After being found to have broken lobbying rules and facing a six-week suspension from the House, it was never going to look anything other than bad to hold up the process so the system could be reviewed to give Mr Paterson a right of appeal.

No matter how strong Mr Paterson’s case might have been, how much the ex-Northern Ireland Secretary deserved compassion following his wife’s suicide last year, or how necessary it is to give MPs the same rights as any other employee in a disciplinary procedure, the furious reaction was all-too predictable.

Winning the vote after government whips turned the thumbscrews on Conservative MPs was hardly going to be the end of the matter, and when the result “landed badly”, as they say in public relations, it took only hours for adverse publicity to force a handbrake turn and the review to be scrapped.

Mr Paterson resigned, although still protesting his innocence, but in the short-term at least the political damage has been done and will have left the Conservative whips wondering why so many thumbs had to be screwed and the Tory rebels who resisted completely vindicated. No wonder the Scottish leader distanced himself from the whole sorry mess.

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Owen Paterson resigns as MP amid suspension row

It didn’t take long for Mr Paterson’s resignation statement that he was leaving the “cruel world” of politics to be proved correct, with Labour’s shadow transport minister Sam Tarry MP describing him “as deluded as he was corrupt”, presumably oblivious to the fact his colleague Claudia Webbe was at that point being given a suspended jail sentence a month after being convicted of harassing a woman and threatening her with acid. Although now expelled from the Labour Party, Ms Webbe remains an MP.

In the deluded camp could be included the orchestrated response from SNP MPs who took to social media to declare that “Scotland can do better than this”, as if the whole Alex Salmond affair had been a text-book case of good governance and probity, and ex-Finance Secretary Derek Mackay had behaved entirely honourably in failing to resign and continuing to claim an MSP’s salary and expenses after being disgraced for grooming a teenager. Mr Paterson has never appeared in a criminal court, but Margaret Ferrier is still an MP.

After a budget which has not so much wrong-footed the opposition parties but sent them sprawling, and Boris Johnson at least appearing to have secured significant agreements at COP26, it was an unnecessarily dreadful end to a big fortnight.

If there is a suggestion his administration doesn’t worry too much about bad headlines on what it might regard as minor matters if the big stuff is making an impact, the Paterson affair shows the folly of pre-judging any standards problem as just a 24-hour story.

Politics is indeed a cruel business and the end result of trying to limit the cruelty to a man who was already suffering was to intensify the personal attacks to which he was already being subjected and inflict greater reputational damage on the Conservative Party than if matters had been allowed to take their normal course. It’s possible Mr Paterson would have resigned a week ago and Thursday’s headlines would have been dominated by Ms Webbe. Not for the first time this year, the government position was just bad politics.

Here, relations between the Scottish and UK governments are so toxic that it’s understandable if SNP outrage is priced in as an automatic consequence of Conservatives continuing to breathe, but what SNP politicians say matters less than how the undecided voters react.

It’s easy for the UK government to dismiss the SNP’s Commons leader Ian Blackford’s hyperbolic reaction that the standards row proved Westminster was “broken beyond repair”, but what if persuadable Scottish voters look at the issue on its merits, think back to duck houses and the other excesses of the MPs’ expenses row, and come to the same conclusion?

Using the Dave Brailsford method of turning British cycling into world beaters, small percentage improvements on the many components which make up the government machine will add up to an unassailable lead and, what’s more, to hardening opposition in Scotland to independence.

UK government policy can’t be framed around how the SNP might react, but boosting the Scottish government budget by £4.6bn and directing a further £170m at Scottish projects like the Granton Gasworks as part of the Levelling Up programme will have less effect if TV news bulletins are dominated by avoidable controversies.

Looked at in isolation, it’s not hard to brush off rows like the peerage and junior ministry for businessman and party donor Malcolm Offord as a trifle, or argue the omission of Peterhead’s Acorn programme from the first round of the £1bn carbon-capture competition is a technicality soon to be resolved.

But the opposite of the Brailsford effect can add up to greater damage to the hard work being done to show the grievance narrative is nothing but a political construct spun by those with their own agendas.

Unpredictability is part of the Prime Minister’s DNA, but from dominating headlines in COP26’s opening exchanges, the revelation that he flew by private jet to London to attend a Daily Telegraph dinner at the Garrick Club wasn’t helpful. While a devil-may-care persona might work for him at receptions or business breakfasts, it isn’t a basic principle of government. The independence movement is running out of gas and the UK government needs to ensure it can’t switch to renewables.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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