Illustration by Ian Morris

How to fix government sleaze

As the latest string of scandals shows, we should not allow Boris Johnson to mark his own homework
April 30, 2021

The prime minister sets the rules. The prime minister chooses the person to advise on the rules. The prime minister decides whether to ask that person to investigate a breach, and whether to publish the “independent” adviser’s report. He then decides if any consequences should follow.

Even the dopiest algorithm could spot that this is a rickety defence against sleaze. When the PM himself is someone a former party colleague labels a “vacuum of integrity,” your system for ensuring ministers behave in a proper way is far from solid.

And that’s not the only aspect of the standards set-up that is inadequate. Serving civil servants oversee their own colleagues’ declarations of conflicts of interest. Post-career conflicts offer the stinging sanction of a curt letter. And the system itself implicitly assumes that after only two years, even a former PM is likely to hold no more sway with his former colleagues than a random private citizen.

All this risks creating a breeding ground for sleaze—a sense that government is too easily turned into a vehicle for private benefit. And as simultaneous scandals around business interests, tax fixes, dodgy contracts and pricey wallpaper suck in not just the current PM and a predecessor, but also senior officials and advisers, it is a problem that is becoming impossible to ignore.

The UK has already had one big inquiry this decade into a scandal that brought down a government—but that was the “cash for ash” debacle in Northern Ireland, and would have been barely noticed at Westminster even if the report had not been published just as Covid-19 took hold. But we can still learn from the outcome. To prevent a repetition, Northern Ireland has formalised rules that on “the mainland” are still just contained in informal codes.

If—big if—the prime minister decides, as John Major did, that he needs to be seen to take sleaze seriously, he will have to remedy some glaring deficiencies. For starters, he needs to update the Ministerial Code—not least to take account of the modern world ministers operate in, where informal contacts abound through WhatsApp—and put it on a statutory basis. Second, we need an independent ministerial ethics adviser, appointed by parliamentarians, not the PM, with a small team who can investigate on their own initiative. Think a National Audit Office for behaviour. Third, that adviser should be able to determine a breach—and the PM should not be able to override them, as he did with the independent adviser on ministerial standards’ finding that Priti Patel bullied colleagues. The PM could have made these changes when he belatedly appointed Lord Geidt as his new adviser on ministerial interests—but notably chose to preserve prime ministerial discretion on all fronts.

A beefed-up ethics adviser could also replace the useless Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and enforce new rules on ministerial conduct after office. Those might include a lifetime ban on former PMs lobbying the government for commercial interests. If we can’t trust them to protect the integrity of the office after they leave, we will have to do it for them.

Nor should the civil service rest smugly on its laurels. Private-sector talent is welcome—but only if the public interest is protected. There is already a Civil Service Commission to oversee appointments at the highest levels. Expand its remit to cover potential conflicts of interest for serving and departed civil servants. And while we are at it, draw up rules for others with inside access to departmental decision-making—the nebulous ranks of “envoys,” “tsars” and unregulated departmental non-executives which have proliferated in recent years (sometimes, one suspects, precisely to circumvent proper rules).

That may all seem dull. But a bit of bureaucratic restraint is better than the alternative: a breakdown of trust in our systems of government.