Lobbying scandal MP Scott Benton loses suspension appeal

Rishi Sunak faces the prospect of another difficult by-election after an independent panel upheld a 35-day suspension of MP Scott Benton.

The Blackpool South MP, who was caught in a lobbying scandal, has lost his appeal against the move. MPs will vote on triggering a recall petition that could force a new poll.

Mr Benton was caught breaching Commons rules by offering to lobby ministers and table parliamentary questions on behalf of gambling investors. He was elected as a Conservative in 2019 with a 3,690 majority but currently sits as an independent.

Mr Benton said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision and claimed there had been a “lack of integrity” throughout the process, which was “prone to regular leaks at every stage”.

The MP appealed against both the finding and the suspension, but a report by an independent panel upheld the Standards Committee’s original decision, saying there had been “no procedural flaw” in the process.

The panel also described Mr Benton’s arguments as “misconceived or erroneous”, finding the sanction was “neither unreasonable nor disproportionate”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

The finding means MPs will vote on whether to implement the recommended suspension which, if supported, would trigger a recall petition and a potential by-election in Mr Benton’s seat. Mr Benton was the subject of a Times newspaper investigation. It raises the prospect of another challenging poll for Mr Sunak after losses in Wellingborough and Kingswood last week.

Voters will have six weeks to register their support for Mr Benton’s removal – 10% is the threshold needed to trigger a by-election. Labour has urged Mr Benton to resign as an MP completely.

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow paymaster general, said: “Scott Benton should do the decent thing and resign, saving the people of Blackpool South a lengthy recall petition that would leave them without the representation they deserve. This is yet another by-election caused by Tory scandal. Britain deserves better than this carousel of Conservative chaos.”

A Blackpool South by-election would be the fourth this year, while defeat would be the 11th time the government had lost a seat since the start of the current Parliament in 2019.Any poll would be unlikely to occur until the end of April or the beginning of May.

Mr Benton had claimed the investigation by the Commons Standards Commissioner was “materially flawed”, alleging the commissioner “drastically over-reached” and “arrived at conclusions which were unsupported by any adequate evidence”. In a new statement, he said: “I am deeply disappointed by the decision of the appeal panel to uphold the Standards Committee’s unjust findings against me.

“The entire process has been prone to regular leaks at every stage, with journalists knowing the details throughout.

“This lack of integrity throughout the process has formed an inescapable appearance of bias.” nHe said he had continued to work for his constituents throughout the process.

“My record of activity, both in Blackpool, and in Westminster, where I am among the most frequent contributors to Parliament, speaks for itself,” he said.

“Since being elected in 2019, I have helped to deliver over £400m in additional government funding for projects in Blackpool – one of the highest amounts in the country.”

Alistair McCapra, chief executive of lobbying trade association the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, welcomed the panel’s decision, saying the footage of Mr Benton recorded by the Times had been “clear and damning”.

He said: “We need a radical shift in the culture around lobbying in this country and effective and clear rules to support that change.

“Until then we will continue to see unethical, disingenuous and underhand attempts to influence policy and there is good evidence to show the continued damage to public trust in politics associated with it.

A Conservative seat from 1945 until 1997, Blackpool South went red between 1997 and 2019. Scott Benton then snatched the seaside seat from long-serving Labour MP Gordon Marsden. But now it could be up for grabs again – with a majority of 3,690.

Given recent by-election results in less favourable conditions for the Labour Party, they must fancy their chances if one is called here.

The path to power for Labour at the next general election could be through winning back seats like these, so the party will mount a strong campaign, with its candidate Chris Webb already primed.

Residents here have been hit by the long-term decline of seaside towns, and many in 2019 were enthused by Boris Johnson’s Levelling Up policies and the hope that his government could help turn the tide.

Now Rishi Sunak could face a strong electoral test in an archetypal Blue Wall seat – and it might be tougher than a stick of rock.

Source: BBC

In other news – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defends Kemi Badenoch in Post Office clash

The prime minister has defended Kemi Badenoch’s handling of a row with a former Post Office boss. Ex-Post Office chair Henry Staunton claimed he was told to stall compensation to sub-postmasters affected by the Horizon IT scandal.

Rishi Sunak

Ms. Badenoch has denied the claims, calling them “completely false”, but he continues to stand by them. Read more

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