In many ways, Owen Paterson MP is the fall guy for a deeper, wider sense of corruption and sleaze that continues to dog a government that is no stranger to shooting itself in its collective foot.
But every scandal needs a scapegoat, and so it’s the MP for North Shropshire – sorry, the former MP for North Shropshire following his resignation – that will take the fall.
What has he done wrong? Well, in 2019 he was found to have breached lobbying rules, acting as an advocate for two companies from whom he received payments of around £500,000 – despite serving as an MP at the time.
That might seem like a pretty obvious conflict of interest, but Paterson – either through naivety or disdain for the taxpayer – didn’t recognise as much, and carried on his grifting until The Guardian found him out in their own investigation.
According to their findings, the minister made 14 attempts to directly contact his fellow MPs and public officers on behalf of his clients. And he also set up a company called UK 2020 that accepted donations from private entities to produce reports on healthcare and the environment. Those ‘donations’ were then ‘donated’ to Paterson….allegedly, of course.
Fast forward to this week, and a vote in Parliament saw the Conservatives try to change the way that ministers’ lobbying antics are policed – a move that prevented Paterson from being suspended from his office.
That caused outrage, naturally, and the government – as is their trademark – pulled a dramatic u-turn 24 hours later.
Alas, it was Paterson who took the fall, and he has now resigned as an MP.
All of which brings us neatly, sort of, to the Grand National, one of horse racing’s flagship occasions.
The Aintree spectacle is sponsored by Randox, who also happen to be one of the companies that Paterson lobbied on behalf of.
Randox is a firm in the healthcare sector for whom Paterson’s thinktank undertook a study for in 2016 – a report that considered the NHS to be below-par compares to healthcare systems in other developed countries.
Peter Fitzgerald, the owner of Randox, employed Paterson as a consultant, paying him £49,000 for his troubles in 2015 and then doubling that to £100,000 a year later – that’s on top of his MP’s salary of around £80,000 a year.
An independent investigation revealed that Paterson lobbied his fellow politicians on behalf of Randox, with leaked documents showing he tried to set up a meeting with Priti Patel.
In the end Rory Stewart, at the time Patel’s junior minister before later running for Tory leader, met with Paterson to discuss the firm’s requirements. It is not believed that any governmental contracts were awarded to Randox as a result.
The National Debate
The Grand National was sponsored by betting firms and alcoholic drinks companies for years, and so there were plenty in racing who were pleased when Randox came forward to take on the sponsorship role.
It’s a golden opportunity for the little-known brand, with the 2021 National – won in spectacular fashion by the golden girl Rachael Blackmore, who became the first female jockey to win the race. That was watched by some nine million viewers.
A deeper dive into the relationship between Randox and the Grand National poses more questions than answers. The former chair of Aintree Racecourse was Rose Paterson – yes, you guessed it, the wife of Owen Paterson.
It should be said that Mrs Paterson was a highly-respected figure in racing, who worked wonders for both Aintree and the Grand National through some trying times. She tragically took her own life in 2020.
But the connection between Rose, Owen, Randox and Aintree is one that seems a bit sordid, to say the least, and you wonder what role Owen Paterson had in pressuring his wife to allow Randox to take on sponsorship duties – that is mere conjecture, not an accusation.
The Jockey Club has commented that the selection process for the new sponsor of the race was ‘fair and robust’, and that there were no plans to review Randox’s deal.
But the Grand National, the one race in the calendar year that captures the imagination of the casual viewer, could do without such negative connotations in an age where the sport is trying to build a brighter future.