The UK’s Conservative Party was only one point ahead of the Labour Party in the latest voting intention poll on Thursday, narrowing the gap by five points compared to the previous week.
It comes as North Shropshire faces a by-election after its Conservative MP Owen Paterson announced his resignation on Thursday following accusations of breaching lobbying rules.
In the latest YouGov Poll published on Thursday, 36 percent of the respondents said on Wednesday and Thursday that they would vote for the Conservative Party if there was a general election on the next day, 3 points down from the number in the previous week.
Meanwhile, Labour stood at 35 points—almost closing the gap—after gaining 2 points.
The Johnson government has been accused of “corruption” and “wallowing in sleaze” after it whipped through a vote on Wednesday to block a 30-day suspension of Paterson—who was found by the cross-party Standards Committee to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 ($134,600) per year but has always maintained he was innocent—by shaking up the disciplinary process.
The government was forced to abandon the plan on Thursday after opposition parties refused to participate in the proposed new Tory-led committee to review Paterson’s case and the current standards system. Ministers acknowledged that a mistake had been made by conflating the two issues, but are still left dealing with the fallout of the decision.
North Shropshire has been a safe Conservative seat, with Paterson—who served as MP for the English constituency for 24 years—holding 62.7 percent of the vote in 2019.
While the idea of backing an independent “anti-sleaze” candidate was floated, the Labour Party said it will stand its own candidate to contest in the by-election, which date has not been set.
On Friday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi defended Prime Minister Boris Johnson, denying that the Paterson case called into question the judgment of the prime minister.
“I think actually it says that the prime minister, when wanting to be following a process that makes the system fairer … wanted to do that,” Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme.
“And very quickly realising that actually that’s one thing that we should pursue on a cross-party basis and we’ll come forward with proposals, and I hope, we can sort of set our politics aside and create a fairer system, because [the] right of appeal, I think, is important, and your listeners will see that as important,” he said.
The Education Secretary also called for compassion for Paterson, whose wife Rose took her own life last year—a tragedy Paterson said was partly the result of the investigation against him.
The Ministers have been arguing that MPs should have the right to appeal after they are ruled to have broken parliamentary rules by standard watchdogs, while Paterson denied the accusations against him and said he can’t clear his name “under the current system.”
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has argued that the claim is “completely wrong” and that Paterson had been “through the appeal” by putting in his points in writing and making his case in person.
The House of Commons is set to hold an emergency debate on Monday on the consequences of this week’s events.
After Paterson announced his resignation on Thursday, Johnson said he was “very sad” but understood Paterson’s decision to “put his family first.”
Calling Paterson his “friend and colleague … for decades,” Johnson said Paterson had “a distinguished career” and has been “a voice for freedom.”
Johnson also backed Chief Whip Mark Spencer, whom some Conservative MPs blamed for whipping the vote on Wednesday.
Committee on Standards Report
Paterson was found to have breached lobbying rules after approaching government departments and ministers on behalf of clinical diagnostics company Randox and food manufacture Lynn’s Country Foods.
According to the report by the Committee on Standards, Paterson approached the Food Standards Agency (FSA) after he had been made aware of concerns about the level of antibiotics in samples of supermarket milk analysed by Randox and subsequently promoted “Randox’s superior technology” which allowed the detection of the “illegal products [that] have not been detected by the current testing regime in retail milk.”
While Paterson argued that he tried to secure accreditation for Randox’s new technology as “it would be a benefit to British consumers in the dairy industry to have a more modern technology,” but the committee found Paterson “went beyond providing evidence of a serious wrong” and the accreditation would ultimately benefit Randox as well.
Paterson also approached the FSA with Lynn’s Country Foods about concerns that a global food producer was acting in breach of EU law by mislabelling a product.
Paterson argued that he was “approaching the FSA with a serious wrong,” but the committee said that regardless of Paterson’s “own subjective motivations,” he breached the rules as the resolution of the problem “would only incidentally benefit Lynn’s.”
Paterson said on Twitter on Friday that he will also step aside from his consultancy work to focus on his family and suicide prevention.
PA contributed to this report.