5 November 2021 | OPINION
Yesterday was a turbulent day in politics. Some people were concerned that Owen Paterson was to remain an MP, despite being accused of breaking lobbying rules for parliamentarians. Others were eager to hear about the sentence that Claudia Webbe would receive – after she had been accused of harassing a woman, because she was jealous of her friendship with her ex-partner. What these two cases show is that no-one is above the law, no matter where your friends are or how much you play the race card, a serious misjudgement will get you kicked out of politics.
In the case of Owen Paterson, the amendment put forward by Andrea Leadsom was an attempt for his friends in Parliament to save him. Yet Aaron Bell (one of only 13 Conservative MPs to vote against it), said during the debate that the Government (in his view) were trying to “move the goalposts’ while the game is still being played”, while Paul Goodman on Conservative Home described the act to create a new Select Committee, which was meant to be an escape route, had risked “becoming a Tory killing ground with no exit”.
Claudia Webbe is certainly an MP who has been interesting whilst in Parliament, after being elected to the constituency of Leicester East in 2019. Yesterday, she was in court to await her sentence, which was given. For harassing a woman, threatening to throw acid over her and threatening to release nude photos of the woman (also known as revenge porn, which is illegal), Webbe has been given a 10-week custodial sentence, suspended for 2 years, and 200 hours of community service.
So many people have found this to be extremely lenient, but what the cases of both Paterson and Webbe show is that people will do anything to reduce the scrutiny they face – scrutiny for their own actions. But now to look at the defences that Paterson and Webbe put up.
Firstly, it looks as though Paterson relied on the “exemption in lobbying rules for MPs who are alerting the government to ‘a serious wrong or substantial injustice’, even if doing so would lead to ‘incidental’ financial or material benefit for the MP”. Furthermore, he had “argued that the investigation constituted an ‘absolute denial of justice’ for a number of reasons, including his claim that several witnesses who had come forward in support of his case had been ignored”. For an individual who has been an MP for 24 years (for context, that is my entire lifetime), I’m not sure about you, but I certainly would have expected him to know the rules better, and the description used that this was another case of “Tory sleaze” definitely fits the bill.
We don’t know exactly what Webbe’s defence was, but according to The Independent, Webbe told Westminster Magistrates Court during the hearing on 13 October that she had only made “courtesy calls” to warn Ms Merritt not to breach coronavirus regulations by meeting her ex-parter. Prior to hearing her sentence, Webbe played the race card when “her barrister asked the judge to ‘please consider my client’s suffering as a black woman and the abuse she encounters’”.
Both Paterson and Webbe playing ‘victim’ is very problematic, but it just goes to show that there are some Members of Parliament who believe they are above the law. If it weren’t for Claudia Webbe, the Labour Party probably could have started to regain the public’s trust in them (and in British politics). Instead, both sides have shown that the one is as bad as the other. For the Conservative Party, another U-turn, another embarrassing story that could have easily been avoided if they genuinely played properly by the book could have done them some favours by showing they aren’t just in it for themselves.
What the embarrassment of the past week shows is that we, as constituents and members of the public, really must hold our elected officials to higher standards. One way to achieve this will be by ensuring those who stand in the pending by-elections aren’t sleazy and selfish – but genuinely want to do good.