Boris Johnson criticised by watchdog over ministerial code changes

Boris Johnson criticised by watchdog over ministerial code changes

A watchdog has expressed concern in response to Boris Johnson’s changes to the ministerial code, warning that the prime minister retains the ability to “critically undermine” the official in charge of investigating potential breaches.

Critics of the embattled Mr Johnson accused him of “watering down the rules to save his own skin” and “acting like a tinpot despot” last week, after he announced changes to the code which mean that ministers will no longer necessarily be expected to resign if they are found to have breached it.

Under the revised code, if the prime minister wishes an offending minister to retain their post, sanctions for code breaches could instead require “some form of public apology, remedial action, or removal of ministerial salary for a period”.

However, not only will Mr Johnson himself still be expected to resign if the current investigation by MPs concludes that he misled parliament over the Partygate scandal, the alterations to the code were also made following recommendations by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life.

But the watchdog’s chairman Lord Evans of Weardale said on Monday that its recommendation for a range of punishments for ministers had been partly intended to remove the need for Mr Johnson to have an effective veto on whether breaches should be investigated – which he still retains.

The government said on Friday that while there would be an “enhanced process” for the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Lord Geidt, to launch his own inquiries, he would still need the prime minister’s permission.

In his official response on Monday, the watchdog’s chairman Lord Evans of Weardale – a former head of MI5 – warned that although there had been “improvement”, the role of Mr Johnson’s adviser was “still not sufficiently independent”.

Lord Evans also expressed concern that the prime minister retained the ability to overrule his advisor on the finding of a breach – circumstances he warned “would critically undermine the credibility of the adviser’s office”.

Lord Geidt’s predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, resigned in 2020 after Mr Johnson rejected his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had been guilty of bullying civil servants.

While Lord Evans said the government’s move to introduce a range of sanctions for code breaches was “in line” with the committee’s recommendations, the committee’s recommendations had been “part of a package” designed to hand greater freedom to the adviser to investigate potential breaches.

In the past, governments have resisted the move to allow the independent advisor to launch their own investigations into possible ministerial breaches, Lord Evans said, given that the presumption of resignation would have handed them an “effective power to fire a minister”.

But Mr Johnson’s introduction of a range of sanctions for code breaches – replacing the blanket expectation of resignation – had removed “this constitutional obstacle”, Lord Evans said, rendering objections to granting the advisor power to initiate his own investigations invalid.

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The watchdog also warned that the post currently held by Lord Geidt “remains an unregulated, direct appointment” by the prime minister.

Lord Evans also appeared to take subtle aim at Mr Johnson’s removal of references to the seven Nolan principles of public life – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – from the foreword of the ministerial code.

The Nolan principles “continue to define the public’s expectations of conduct for all those in public office”, Lord Evans wrote, adding: “High ethical standards, and effective regulatory processes to maintain the standards expected, are integral to the operation of effective government.

“They are part of the checks and balances that define the character of our democracy, provide accountability in between elections and help ensure public trust in the integrity of government.”

Labour is expected to attempt to force a Commons vote on the changes when parliament returns from week-long recess break – marking one of several challenges potentially awaiting the prime minister.

As the number of Tory MPs coming forward with demands for Mr Johnson to resign in the wake of Sue Gray’s Partygate report continued to grow on Monday, some speculated that 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady could have already received the requisite 54 letters needed to spark a vote of no confidence, and could be waiting for the Commons to return to make his announcement.

Desk Team

Desk Team