An open letter to my Tory MP on changes to the Ministerial Code

I have written previously in ‘Tories crack the Ministerial Code’ about how the current government has significantly eroded the public’s trust in politics. In light of the recent behaviour of Boris Johnson and this week’s updating of the Ministerial Code, I have again written to my local MP, Richard Fuller about how these updates further reduce Boris Johnson’s accountability and asking him to reconsider his current support for the Prime Minister. The letter is set out in full below and I have provided a number of links for further reading.

I am writing to you regarding the recent changes to the Ministerial Code which was published yesterday, the 27th of May and Boris Johnson’s response to the findings of the Sue Gray report, published on 25th May.

I am sure you are now aware in the Prime Minister’s foreword to the updated Code that all references to the need for Ministers to uphold the very highest standards of propriety and the ‘precious principles of public life’, have been removed.

The Ministerial Code is issued by the Prime Minister and whilst it is a matter of convention, rather than having any legal basis, it sets out how ministers should behave and lays out for the public, the standards against which ministers, and the government should be held to.

The recent Owen Paterson scandal saw Boris Johnson attempt to change the rules, and  his actions were subsequently described by Lord Evans,  Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as “a very serious and damaging moment for Parliament and for public standards in this country.” The Prime Minister was subsequently forced into a humiliating U-turn.

For Johnson to now rewrite the rules just before facing an inquiry by the Privileges Committee is behaviour that we, if it were to be seen taking place in any other country, would rightly be shocked at the sheer audacity of such a move. A Prime Minister who acts like the rules don’t apply to him or changes the rules for personal benefit, does great damage to our democracy and the public’s confidence in politics.

Further, the Prime Minister has rejected the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendation to allow the Independent Advisor to launch their own inquiries without the Prime Minister’s consent. This rejection, along with the fact that the Prime Minister has the final decision on who is appointed as their ‘independent’ advisor, means there are valid and serious concerns about the impartiality and true independence of the position. Again, this further reduces public confidence that there will be any accountability at the highest levels of our government.

In addition to this, the updated Code states that if the Prime Minister decides that an investigation shouldn’t proceed, the Independent Advisor may still make public the reasons for not proceeding unless “this would undermine the grounds that have led to the investigation not proceeding.” This is clearly nothing more than a means to ensure that a Prime Minister’s decision not to allow an investigation will not be publicly scrutinised, hardly open or accountable as per the Nolan Principles.

The removal of any reference to the ‘Nolan Principles’ in the Prime Minister’s foreword to the Ministerial Code gives the clear impression – and given the timing, one can only think this is intentional – that Johnson believes he can change the rules of the game if they do not suit him. In a previous version of the Ministerial Code, David Cameron said “we must remember that we are not masters but servants.” Unfortunately, and I do not say it lightly, Johnson’s behaviour is more akin to that of a dictator, rather than a servant of the people.

I want to make clear that this is not a witch hunt. In defence of Johnson, although some have commented on the apparent watering down of the potential sanctions, including an apology or temporary removal of a Ministerial salary, I am fully aware that this was a recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life as the single option to resign was deemed too harsh for minor breaches of the code. Further, the Code still includes an expectation that a Minister will resign if found to have knowingly misled Parliament.

I also note that in the Foreword there is a change of emphasis from a Prime Minister being accountable under the Ministerial Code to that of being accountable via the ballot box. This suggests that Boris Johnson believes he is not bound by the code and is both judge and jury on his own breaches of the code. Once again this demonstrates his lack of any accountability and a fundamental belief that the rules do not apply to him.

The Prime Minister has stated that he takes “full responsibility” for the parties and behaviour that took place in 10 Downing Street and the culture revealed by the Sue Gray report. Can you please define “full responsibility” in this context – and how Boris Johnson has understood it? Boris Johnson clearly has a tenuous relationship with the truth and believes that the rules that apply to others do not apply to him. Both of these are immensely damaging to our democracy as well as the public’s trust in politicians and the political system under which we are governed.

Although our political views differ sharply, I know you think deeply about the issues that impact your constituents and like me, you are immensely proud of our country. In light of this, I would urge you to reconsider your current support for the Prime Minister.

In April you said that “Some constituents have asked me to go further: to force the Prime Minister to resign in mid-term. I do not agree that the announcements made yesterday yet achieve the standard needed for such an action on my part.”

Should you continue to support him, I am afraid that you will bear a degree of responsibility for what ensues if he were to remain in post. I look forward to hearing your views on the issues raised above. Please regard this as an open letter.

Yours sincerely

Julian Vaughan

29th May 2022

The 2019 Foreword to the Ministerial Code – the paragraphs highlighted in yellow have been removed in full from the updated version published this week

The May 2022 version of the Ministerial Code

Further Reading:

Upholding Standards in Public Life: Final Report of the Standards Matter 2 review – November 2021

Transparency International UK: It’s time for the MInisterial Code to become law

The Institute for Government: The Ministerial Code

HM Government Statement of Government Policy: Standards in Public Life May 2022

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