The Ministerial Code, which has been in place since the Second World War, but only became public in 1992, sets out the rules and principles which outline the standards of conduct for government Ministers. It used to be the case that even a suggestion of impropriety would lead to a resignation, but under Johnson’s premiership, a politician regarded as having a particularly strained relationship with the truth, there have been a number of high profile cases where ministers have resolutely stayed in post.
As a disciplinary policy it is very weak and carries no legal standing, with the Prime Minister the ultimate arbiter of what does, or doesn’t happen after any investigation.
The Code discusses some fine principles of the behaviour expected; ‘the very highest standards of propriety’ which ‘must be honoured at all times.’ Only once does it specifically mention an expectation to resign, when it discusses a Minister knowingly misleading Parliament.
The code contains a section on bullying, under which the Home Secretary Priti Patel was investigated in 2020. You can read the findings of that investigation here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/937010/Findings_of_the_Independent_Adviser.pdf
However, while the code states that bullying will not be tolerated, it seems it will be allowed in a Johnson led administration as, while Patel was found to have broken the code by bullying officials, she was not asked to resign. Soon after this the independent adviser who carried out the investigation resigned in protest at the decision to take no action. The story on this, and Patel’s non apology here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-55016076
The Ministerial Code contains a lot of fluff about the need to hold the highest standards, and that the ‘Nolan Principles’, described below as the ‘precious principles of public life’ must be upheld by Ministers at all times. However, there is very little about actual accountability if these standards are not met and the Prime Minister is both judge and jury in the process. While I can understand a Prime Minister wanting some wriggle room in decision making, there must be greater independence and power given to those who carry out the investigation.
So as it stands at the moment, no-one genuinely seems to says sorry and no-one resigns. Why does this matter? The lack of accountability is very damaging to our democracy as it further erodes trust in our politicians and political process and a view that “they’re all the same” disengages people from politics. Further, this sets a bad example to all levels of government and this lack of accountability risks seeping from 10 Downing Street to all levels of national and local politics.
In addition to this, the latest terms of reference for Lord Geidt, the newly appointed Adviser on Ministerial Interests, indicate that his advice to the Prime Minister may remain unpublished, which would add lack of transparency to the current lack of accountability in the current government.
On its own the lack of adherence to the Nolan Principles may seem inconsequential and may not to use the current buzz-phrase ‘cut through’ to the general public. However, taken as part of a package of steps taken by this government to dismantle our democracy; the attacks on judicial review, Voter ID and threats to repeal the Human Rights Act covered in a previous blog, it is further threat to the checks and balances of power in our political system. Indeed, it is the low key nature of disregard for the Code that is particularly concerning as the incremental changes slip under the radar of public opinion. If we truly don’t care what our politicians get up to then we are on a very slippery slope indeed.
Those who stand for public office shouldn’t be required to be saints, but a basic level of ethical behaviour is necessary and as set out in previous versions of the Code by Tony Blair and David Cameron, politicians must “serve in the interests of those who gave us our positions of trust” and “remember that we are not masters but servants”.
The Tories are trashing our reputation around the world, while at the same time further eroding trust in politics. We can and must do better than this.
1st June 2021