The United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party has been accused of corruption after backing a colleague who broke paid lobbying rules.
MPs in the House of Commons voted by 250 to 232 on Wednesday against a 30-day suspension of Owen Paterson, a move that was recommended by the chamber’s standards committee.
The watchdog had determined that Paterson committed an “egregious case of paid advocacy” by repeatedly using his position to promote two companies, which together paid him nearly three times his annual parliamentary salary.
But when MPs were asked to endorse his suspension, a group of Conservatives, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s support, put forward a proposal to instead delay it and set up a new committee to review the Commons’ disciplinary process.
Opposition parties angered by the proposal said the rules were being changed because the government did not support the suspension, a move they said would damage public trust in parliament.
Some MPs shouted “shame” as the result of Wednesday’s vote was readout.
There was also disquiet among some on the governing benches. Of the 361 Conservative MPs in parliament, more than 100 either voted against or abstained.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer denounced the move by Conservative MPs as “corruption”.
“Tory [Conservative] MPs voted to let off one of their own,” he said in an opinion piece published in the Guardian newspaper, before accusing the party of “wallowing in sleaze”.
Starmer singled out Johnson for particular criticism.
“The rot starts at the top. We have a prime minister whose name is synonymous with sleaze, dodgy deals and hypocrisy,” he said.
Paterson, who has said the stress of the investigation contributed to his wife’s suicide last year, disputes the standards committee’s findings and said witnesses who came forward to support him were not spoken to.
“The process I was subjected to did not comply with natural justice,” he said in a statement. “After two years of hell, I now have the opportunity to clear my name.
“I hope that no other MP will ever again be subject to this shockingly inadequate process.”
The current Committee on Standards comprises seven lawmakers from several parties including four Conservatives, as well as seven lay members.
The new committee will have a majority of Conservatives and be led by a former Conservative minister. Opposition parties indicated they would boycott it.
The government said it was focused on improving the process of investigating MPs accused of wrongdoing.
“The point of the vote [on Wednesday] wasn’t to say whether Owen was in the right or in the wrong. What the vote was doing was to bring some due process to where we are,” Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng told ITV’s Peston programme.
“What we want to do is make an open process wherein any workplace in the land you would have a right of appeal.”