Government ministers will no longer be expected automatically to resign or be sacked if they breach their code of conduct, under changes announced by Boris Johnson.
Ministers to escape sack for ethics breaches, as Boris Johnson accused of ‘rigging’ rules
Andrew Woodcock www.independent.co.uk
An update to the code published today states that it is “disproportionate” to expect heads to roll for every breach of the code no matter how minor, and says ministers could instead be punished by “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period”.
The chair of the House of Commons standards committee said the change took the UK into “banana republic territory”, while Labour accused the prime minister of “watering down the rules to save his own skin”.
It comes ahead of an inquiry by the Commons privileges committee into whether Mr Johnson lied to parliament over lockdown-breaching parties at 10 Downing Street.
However, it is unlikely to provide the PM with a get-out if the cross-party panel finds against him, as the new code continues to state that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister”.
The former chair of the committee on standards in public life, Sir Alistair Graham, told The Independent that it was “very unfortunate timing that Johnson is seeking to weaken the ministerial code after receipt of the damaging Sue Gray report” into Partygate.
“It will reinforce the cynical view that politicians do not care about standards,” said Sir Alistair.
The announcement came just hours after the first resignation from Mr Johnson’s government since Wednesday’s publication of the full Gray report, with Eastleigh MP Paul Holmes quitting his role as a Home Office aide in protest at “the toxic culture that seems to have permeated No 10”.
“It is clear to me that a deep mistrust in both the government and the Conservative Party has been created by these events, something that pains me personally as someone who always tries to represent Eastleigh and its people with integrity,” he said.
And former minister Sir Bob Neill became the 12th Tory MP to announce he has written a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson, declaring: “To rebuild trust and move on, a change in leadership is required.” Another MP Alicia Kearns, who represents Melton and “was rumoured to be a key part of the “pork pie” plot against the prime minister earlier this year, also said she did not have confidence in him.
Meanwhile, the prime minister has rejected a demand from his independent ethics adviser Christopher Geidt for powers to launch his own investigations into ministerial misconduct without seeking permission from Downing Street.
Instead, the new rules say Lord Geidt must “consult” the PM on any inquiries – but grant him the right to go public if Mr Johnson refuses to allow them to go ahead. Even this new right is qualified by a provision allowing the PM to overrule him on publicity.
The review was demanded by Lord Geidt in the wake of the row over the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat at 11 Downing Street. The decision to release the long-delayed outcome on a Friday afternoon during parliamentary recess was viewed by many at Westminster as a bid to avoid scrutiny.
A new foreword to the code, penned by the prime minister, has removed previous references to the principles of “integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership” which should guide ministers’ conduct.
In their place, the PM said ministers’ duty was to be “innovating, challenging assumptions and striving always to mobilise the power of the state for the benefit of the public”.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Mr Johnson of “downgrading and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes”.
“In a week when Boris Johnson’s lies to parliament about industrial rule-breaking at the heart of government were finally exposed, he should be tendering his resignation but is instead watering down the rules to save his own skin,” said Ms Rayner.
“Once again, Boris Johnson has demonstrated he is not serious about his pledge to address the scandal and sleaze engulfing his government or the frequent and flagrant breaches of standards and rule-breaking that have taken place on his watch.”
And standards committee chair Chris Bryant told The Independent: “The new ministerial code is a disgrace. The code is already so threadbare when it comes to ministerial accountability that it barely covers their dignity. And now they want to strip away what’s left.
“I despair. The government motto seems to be ‘If you break the rules, change the rule book’. This is banana republic territory.”
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain described the code rewrite as “an appalling attempt by Boris Johnson to rig the rules to get himself off the hook”.
“The prime minister shouldn’t be allowed to decide on his own punishment, with zero accountability,” said Ms Chamberlain. “This is making him judge and jury in his own case.
“If the privileges committee finds Boris Johnson lied to parliament, surely Conservative MPs will have no choice but to sack him.”
Since the code’s introduction by John Major in 1992 and its formalisation by Tony Blair in 1997, there has always been an expectation that ministers found to have transgressed will resign or be dismissed.
But Institute for Government expert Tim Durrant said that the option of a more lenient penalty has always been available to prime ministers, at the cost of public controversy. He pointed to David Cameron’s decision to allow Baroness Warsi to get away with an apology for a minor breach in 2012.
“There has been a public expectation that a breach always results in resignation,” he told The Independent. “But the code itself has only ever explicitly included that sanction for ministers who have knowingly misled parliament. This update makes explicit that there are other sanctions available for different breaches, which was not previously stated.
“At the end of the day, it is always going to be the prime minister who decides who is in his or her government.”
Until this year, the ethical adviser could only launch an investigation if ordered to by the prime minister, but following the “Wallpapergate” controversy over the Downing Street flat, Lord Geidt won the right to propose an inquiry.
The new changes go further, allowing him to initiate an investigation of an alleged breach of the code. But the adviser is still required to consult the PM, who the code states “will normally give his consent”.
It adds: “Where there are public interest reasons for doing so, the prime minister may raise concerns about a proposed investigation such that the independent adviser does not proceed.
“In such an event, the independent adviser may still require that the reasons for an investigation not proceeding be made public unless this would undermine the grounds that have led to the investigation not proceeding.”
The new code makes clear that the PM retains the final decision on whether and how a minister should be punished for breaches.
But a new paragraph makes it explicit that he has the leeway – after taking “confidential advice” from his adviser – to be lenient.
It states: “Where the prime minister retains his confidence in the minister, available sanctions include requiring some form of public apology, remedial action, or removal of ministerial salary for a period.”