Ethics chief: UK PM's reforms after Partygate "highly unsatisfactory", won't "restore public trust"

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Friday, June 3, 2022

Johnson (visible) at a November 13, 2020 gathering to commemorate the departure of a special adviser in a partially-censored photograph published in the Sue Gray report into Partygate.
Image: 10 Downing Street.

Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life Jonathan Evans criticised United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson's proposed changes to the ministerial code after the Partygate revelations on Wednesday as "highly unsatisfactory".

The watchdog slammed revisions presented last week, which allow ministers to remain serving after breaching the code and continues to restrict the ethics adviser from launching investigations without the Prime Minister's consent. Evans said that unless the adviser, currently Lord Geidt, is allowed to scrutinise ministerial conduct independently, "suspicion about the way in which the ministerial code is administered will linger."

Evans wrote in a blog article published on gov.uk that the Committee proposed code infractions be tied to a series of graduated sanctions, rather than the "all-or-nothing approach" that gave past prime ministers unease.

However, he continued, the government's reforms include the variable penalties whilst retaining the requirement investigations into the code are contingent on the Prime Minister's approval. Evans wrote the graduated sanctions, specified to be either a public apology, fine or request for resignation, was "part of a mutually dependent package of reforms, designed to be taken" alongside greater autonomy for the ethics adviser.

Johnson (centre) gathering in the Cabinet Room on June 19, 2020 beside Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (right)—their attendance got both fined after a Metropolitan Police investigation.
Image: 10 Downing Street.
File:Boris Johnson birthday toast.jpg
The same day, Johnson (right) with then Permanent Secretary Simon Case (left).
Image: 10 Downing Street.

Johnson dismissed Geidt's remarks there was a "legitimate question" over whether Johnson's receiving a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid-19 restrictions in June 2020 constituted an infraction. In a letter Tuesday, the Prime Minister wrote: "taking account of all the circumstances, I did not breach the code", and in clearing the parliamentary record "followed the principles of leadership and accountability".

Geidt criticised the "circular process" that "could only risk placing the ministerial code in a place of ridicule", and reportedly considered resigning Tuesday. He said he told Johnson's advisers the PM "should be ready to offer public comment on his obligations under the ministerial code" to no avail.

Evans agreed, elaborating "an adviser who believes their advice will be rejected will simply not put forward advice at all, with the precedent already established that this will lead to the adviser’s resignation."

Conservative Party MPs have continued to submit letters of no-confidence to the 1922 Committee headed by Sir Graham Brady. A compilation by the BBC on Wednesday counted 28 MPs of the 54 MP threshold who have publicly urged Johnson to resign, though some may not have submitted letters. Those listed are diverse: they include past ministers, committee chairs and backbenchers on either side of the Brexit debate. The Independent said at least thirty wanted the PM out.

One of the most recent rebel MPs, Simon Fell for Barrow and Furness, Scotland wrote to constituents: "It beggars belief that when the government was doing so much to help people during the pandemic, a rotten core with an unacceptable culture carried on regardless of the restrictions placed on the rest of us".

Another, Caroline Dinenage for Gosport expressed no-confidence with the remark that Johnson "has stated that measures have been put in place to achieve [systemic change], but until I see real evidence of leadership that is listening and changing, I’m afraid I am not prepared to defend it".

Frontbench ministers accused breakaway Tories of doing "the opposition's work", according to culture minister Nadine Dorries. Home Secretary Priti Patel said focussing on dissenters is "a sideshow, quite frankly, rather than focusing on the real challenges", telling fellow MPs to "forget it".

Johnson overruled the judgment of Geidt's predecessor Sir Alex Allan when he concluded Patel had "not consistently met the high standards expected of her" in 2020. In response, Sir Alex stepped down, acknowledging "it is for the Prime Minister to make a judgment on whether actions by a minister amount to a breach of the ministerial code" but adding "I feel that it is right that I should now resign".

Associate director for the Institute for Government Tim Durrant told The Guardian: "The fact that behaviour and propriety have been such an issue for this government has really exposed the limits of the code, and of Lord Geidt’s role."

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