British ministers no longer to resign for ‘minor’ breaches of code

Boris Johnson ‘debasing principles of public life’ by rewriting rules, says Labour deputy leader

British prime minister Boris Johnson has rewritten the ministerial code so that ministers will no longer have to resign if they breach it in any way but can face lesser sanctions for “minor” breaches. Ministers will still have to resign if they knowingly mislead parliament but lesser breaches of the code could be punished by requiring a public apology or temporarily removing ministerial salary.

The revised version includes changes to the role of the Independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Christopher Geidt, who advises the prime minister on matters relating to the code. Mr Johnson will continue to be the only person who can authorise an investigation into an alleged breach of the code but Lord Geidt can now insist that the PM publishes his reasons for not proceeding.

Mr Johnson has also written a new foreword to the code, removing references to the specific standards ministers are required to uphold, a move condemned by Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner.

“Boris Johnson has today rewritten his own foreword to the ministerial code, removing all references to integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest. This prime minister is downgrading and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes,” she said.

In the foreword to the code he wrote in 2019, Mr Johnson was specific about the standards of behaviour required of his ministers.

“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. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document — integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest — must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much-admired civil service,” he wrote.

Private flat

The new foreword instead lists the government’s priorities, adding that the ministerial code continues to fulfil its purpose in guiding ministers’ behaviour. Last year, Lord Geidt investigated the funding of a redecoration of the prime minister’s private flat in Downing Street but he cleared Mr Johnson of wrongdoing on the grounds that he did not know that a Conservative party donor had given him £58,000 (€68,000) to help pay for the makeover.

The prime minister’s changes to the code comes at the end of a week in which senior civil servant Sue Gray documented a culture of rule-breaking in Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdowns. Conservative MP Paul Holmes on Friday resigned his junior government role, saying his efforts to represent his constituency were tarnished by the “toxic culture” exposed by Ms Gray.

“Over the last few weeks this distress has led me to conclude that I want to continue to focus solely on my efforts in being your member of parliament and the campaigns that are important to you. That is why I have now resigned from my governmental responsibilities as a parliamentary private secretary at the Home Office,” he said.