Wednesday 3 November 2021 is likely to go down in the history of this parliament as the most difficult day to have been a Conservative MP. This is not a column about the rights or wrongs of Owen Paterson’s work commitments or the report that has been made about his conduct. He has resigned as an MP. Neither is it comment on the merits or otherwise of the system of regulation Members of Parliament operate under, a system they imposed upon themselves. There are good arguments for its reformation. Plenty of comment and argument can be found here and elsewhere for all of those important matters. No, this piece is about the human conflict, agony and opportunity that underpins such contentious votes.

The Paterson vote, which for ease of reference is what I shall call it here, is a classic case study of its kind. It is a vote on an issue that vitally animates MPs but is largely not focussed on by the rest of us outside. It is a vote that affects an MP’s position, activity and actions – always a subject that touches the most sensitive of nerves for Parliamentarians.

After months of investigation and deliberation the parliamentary processes delivered a unanimous verdict which started off a chain reaction of events that led to the Prime Minister making a fateful decision. We will leave aside here the quality of political judgement and analysis the Prime Minister received in helping him reach the decision.

The scene was set for a swift vote. Once the Prime Minister had made his decision and given the large majority the government enjoys, victory in the Commons should have been a given. The vote however was preceded by an enormous three-line whip operation, an early indicator of the lack of confidence in the whips office about the result.

There are many difficult votes MPs face, but they are mostly about policy matters and often eased by the existence of clear party divides and loyalty. 

This vote of course was essentially about a person, an individual, so judgement and reference in speeches was inevitably and understandably clouded by personal affection and personal loyalty. The mistake however was clear from the start and it was to conflate Owen Paterson’s personal position and the desire, held by many, for a general reform of the system. 

The day after the vote – won narrowly by the government – the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, acknowledged this to be the case. This was the essential mistake that set the path for the government’s U-turn and about which they were warned by no less a figure than the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, when he said: “If we want to consider changing the system we should do it in a proper way. I don’t regard this as appropriate now.” He went on to point out the system was one MPs in an earlier Parliament had put in place despite warnings about some of the consequences.

Sir Peter (I should say here for the sake of openness is a good friend of mine and a modest investor in Reaction) frequently champions the difficult cause or unpopular campaign. Some parliamentary colleagues are given to thinking he can be a little eccentric. Indeed, only a few weeks ago he was suggesting MPs needed a significant pay rise and was roundly attacked for his efforts, even by parliamentary colleagues.

Nevertheless, he was right on the Paterson vote and the government’s swift change of direction demonstrates that. Having been an MP for nearly 50 years, Peter has, so far, seen eight prime ministers come and go. Those that know him know his political antennae are often acute. You do not sit in the Commons for half a century if you are not actually quite good at politics and when he notified the whips yesterday he was not voting with the government, their warning bells should have started jangling.

There are lessons Conservative parliamentary colleagues can learn from their party’s longest serving Parliamentarian and one of them is that when he senses a political mistake they should all pause for thought.