Helping an old friend? The Paterson scandal shone a light on sleaze. Photo: PA/Alamy

Boris Johnson’s ethical standards are now an existential threat to the Tory Party

The prime minister presides over an atmosphere of sleaze, dishonesty and chaos
December 9, 2021

Those interested in the ethical standards to which the government of the United Kingdom aspires can do no better than to look at the ministerial code reissued by successive prime ministers.

The current version, issued by Boris Johnson, states that ministers “are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.” Reference is made to the need to adhere to the Nolan principles which, since Michael Nolan became the first chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1994, have been the benchmark for the behaviour of public servants. The code stresses the “importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the first opportunity.” It adds that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister.” Ministers are also placed under an overarching duty to comply with the law. Prior to 2015, this section also had the words “including international law.” These words were removed by David Cameron, in a fit of pique at being too often reminded about this point. But the government accepted then, and has accepted since, that it makes no difference to the scope of the obligation.

As well as re-issuing the code, it seems clear that Johnson has read it, as he also issued a highly personal foreword, which contains rather more than the usual pieties. It starts with a resounding declaration that his government’s mission is to “deliver Brexit… for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our whole United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth.”  It then goes on: “There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest… integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership,” all Nolan principles, “must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.”

Then, after an unusual paragraph about no minister being allowed to “stall the collective decisions necessary to deliver Brexit,” he ends: “The time has come to act, to take decisions, and to give strong leadership to change this country for the better. This is what this government will do.”

Leaving aside whether or not Brexit is turning us into the greatest country on earth, Johnson has certainly re-interpreted the code of conduct he signed off in remarkable fashion. A comprehensive survey would be too long for this column, but some examples stand out.

Confronted with serious allegations of bullying against the home secretary Priti Patel, he asked Alex Allan, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, to investigate if the ministerial code had been breached. When Allan found that the “home secretary had not consistently met the high standards expected of her,” he was overruled by Johnson, who accepted Allan’s resignation rather than asking for that of Patel.

“Johnson’s misbehaviour is in a class of its own. It is also infectious”

On numerous occasions, Johnson has made inaccurate statements to the Commons. These include that the government had “restored the nurses’ bursary” for student nurses, when it was only providing a maintenance grant that does not cover tuition fees. Another was that all Covid-related contracts were “on the record,” when a High Court judge had just found that they were not and that some of them had been withheld from the public. When challenged, his spokesman has occasionally indicated that the record will be corrected as the code and the conventions of the Commons require, but that rarely—if ever—happens. The withheld contracts themselves raise serious questions as to whether the government has acted with motivations other than the public interest in awarding some of them to Tory Party donors, friends and supporters.

He is also more than capable of bending the truth away from parliament. During the political crisis in autumn 2019, a No 10 source informed a national newspaper that a group of MPs  (including this writer) who had promoted the Benn Act to prevent a no-deal exit from the EU were suspected of receiving money from foreign governments, and would be subject to a security inquiry. Asked about this, Johnson said he thought there was something that needed investigating. Two weeks later, the cabinet secretary stated that no such inquiry existed or had ever existed, or even been considered. By then, however, media reporting had ensured that the MPs concerned had received the usual crop of death threats. As far as I am aware, Johnson has never offered a retraction or apology for this.

Another area of difference with his predecessors is his interpretation of the “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law” in his code. In publishing the Internal Market Bill clauses on the Northern Ireland protocol in September last year, Johnson breached international law and a treaty he had signed less than a year before. As working on the legislation breached the civil service code as well, one must assume the new cabinet secretary Simon Case required a written direction from the prime minister to tell civil servants to work on the bill. The legal justification advanced was advice by the current attorney general, Suella Braverman, regarded as flawed and untenable by most lawyers: the Treasury solicitor—the senior permanent lawyer in government—resigned over it. It is noteworthy that under Johnson, the attorney general, who has never had a politically appointed special adviser in the past—it was considered to risk politicising or tainting their decisions—has now got one.

The remarkable thing is that, until recently, Johnson’s approach has encountered only muted opposition. His supporters have explained or excused it as part of a necessary return to a more robust form of politics, where a prime minister with a Commons majority may largely do as he or she pleases, subject to not forfeiting that support or losing a general election. Freed from the nitpicking constraints of the law, constitutional conventions and self-imposed rules on propriety, the ability to deliver on the resounding promises in his foreword to his code will be enhanced. The fact that earlier PMs, such as Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill, exercised patronage and were able to enjoy financial support from donors without having to worry about registering their interests, or facing the scrutiny of electoral commissions and parliamentary commissioners for standards, is advanced as an argument that critics are merely point-scoring.

There is no doubt that other recent prime ministers have been accused of venality or of failing to tell the truth when under pressure. Harold Wilson’s “lavender list” of peers springs to mind. But it is hard not to conclude that Johnson’s misbehaviour is in a class of its own. It is also infectious. Ministers, even with personal qualms, are compelled to bend with the wind to keep their jobs. Others echo their leader and are untroubled that government contracts might have become tainted by personal or political connections, or whether there might not be a conflict of interest in having a non-executive director of your department as your mistress.

The scandal over his behaviour in whipping his party to neuter the standards commissioner and committee’s report on Owen Paterson may, however, be the tipping point. Whether the motive was the desire to support a friend, irrespective of the facts, or the more sinister one of undermining the commissioner before she gets to investigate the PM himself over any failure to register interests correctly, the effect was to sully the reputations of loyal colleagues who complied with the whip. Far from providing leadership, he failed his MPs utterly. Yet the overwhelming majority of them, as is the case for MPs of all parties, came into parliament to serve the public and act honourably.

The unanswered question is what they do about it. Johnson was made leader by MPs desperate for a way through Brexit; for MPs to reject him now calls into question their judgment in electing a figure whose character flaws were obvious. Still, they ought to have the courage to ignore self-imposed constraint. There is nothing to suggest the prime minister will change for the better. The Conservative Party has always prided itself on its ability to deliver sound government. The atmosphere of sleaze, dishonesty and chaos created by Johnson is corrosive of public trust and an existential threat to the party’s reputation and future.