Civil war is breaking out on the Conservative benches as fury over the government’s handling of the Owen Paterson affair boils over in Westminster.
A new poll carried out by YouGov in the wake of the dramatic Commons vote on Wednesday to suspend the standards system showed the Tory poll lead plummeting by five points.
The party is now just one point of Labour, plunging from 39 per cent to 36 per cent in just a week – while Keir Starmer has seen his stock rise to 35 per cent, according to the poll in The Times.
As the fallout continues, the prime minister now faces the prospect of a by-election in North Shropshire which will be dominated by allegations of sleaze following Paterson’s resignation.
Anger has now erupted between MPs, with one red wall Tory reportedly confronting Paterson in the House of Commons for his role in the lobbying scandal.
According to The Times, Paterson was approached by Christian Wakeford, the Tory MP for Bury South while walking through the division lobby for a vote on the nuclear energy bill, hours after the Commons voted to gut the standards regime.
A fuming Wakeford reportedly approached Paterson and, in full view of colleagues, called him “a c***” – before storming off.
The conflict within the party has been portrayed as pitting younger MPs versus the old guard, with those in marginal seats like the red wall furious at being hung out to dry for Paterson’s sake.
One columnist on Friday morning quoted a cabinet minister who said: We saw two parties today. The 2017 and 2019 intakes who didn’t understand why they were being asked to vote for this, and the pre-2010 intakes who were more taken with the idea of protecting one of their own.”
Boris Johnson now faces the prospect of a by-election in North Shropshire which will be dominated by allegations of sleaze following Paterson’s resignation.
And Labour has demanded an investigation into comments by the business secretary relating to the future of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, whose probe into Paterson triggered the chaos seen this week in Westminster.
The farcical series of events have led to some Tories pointing the finger of blame at Chief Whip Mark Spencer, although Downing Street insisted Johnson had confidence in him and the “excellent job” he was doing.
Former chief whip Mark Harper who was one of 13 Tories to rebel to vote against the plans on Wednesday, said the affair was “one of the most unedifying episodes” he has seen during his 16 years in Parliament and appeared to blame Johnson.
“My colleagues should not have been instructed, from the very top, to vote for this,” he said.
Paterson had a comfortable majority of almost 23,000 in North Shropshire and the circumstances of the by-election have led to claims the opposition parties could unite behind a single anti-sleaze candidate, although Labour sources insisted no “official” talks had taken place.
Before the Government’s U-turn and Paterson’s subsequent resignation, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng suggested the result of the vote calling for reform of the Commons standards regime had put Kathryn Stone’s position as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in doubt.
“I think it’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, and we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process, but it’s up to the commissioner to decide her position,” he told Sky News.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has demanded an investigation into whether those comments breached the Ministerial Code which calls for “consideration and respect” and for “proper and appropriate” working relationships with parliamentary staff.
In a letter to the independent adviser on ministers’ interests Lord Geidt, Rayner said: “For the Business Secretary to use this entirely corrupt process to bully the independent Parliamentary Commissioner is disgusting.”