Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

So what happens next? Who must police integrity in government if the Prime Minister himself is not going to do so, and indeed if the allegations of breaking the Code are pointed at him? Given our political constitution, and system of parliamentary democracy, the answer can only be MPs. Whether or not this is desirable may be questioned, as discussed below, but it is undeniably the case. While public trust in the courts and independent regulators may be significantly higher than trust in politicians, they cannot remove a Prime Minister from office. Parliament’s place at the heart of our constitution means that MPs bear the heavy constitutional responsibility of protecting the integrity of that system. No higher authority exists. Crucially, that fundamental constitutional duty on MPs belongs above short-term party politics.

In practice, the key players are MPs from the governing party – i.e. currently Conservative MPs. In the context of a majority government, it is they who are arbiters of whether that government enjoys the confidence of parliament, and can pursue its policy programme.

For months, as the ‘partygate’ scandal has rumbled on, there has been speculation about Conservative MPs submitting letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee to express no confidence in Boris Johnson. According to the party’s rules, a no-confidence vote among Conservative MPs will be triggered if such letters are received from 15% of parliamentary party members (currently 54 MPs). If the leader fails to win such a vote, he or she must then be replaced. The other route to remove the Prime Minister would be a formal vote of no-confidence by the House of Commons itself. This is almost guaranteed to take place if requested by the leader of the opposition (currently Keir Starmer), but the government’s 80-seat majority means that it would require support from a broadly similar number of Conservative backbenchers to those needing to submit letters if it was to succeed. This is a potential route if a determined minority of Conservatives wanted to remove Johnson, but it is in practice very rare for government backbenchers to vote with the opposition in this way. A formal no-confidence vote would destabilise the whole government, though this might be resolved quickly if the Prime Minister responded by tendering his resignation. But it would be messy, and Conservative MPs participating in such action might be stripped of the whip. The 1922 route is the more likely.

MPs reflecting on these questions face some difficult dilemmas. The local elections are in three weeks’ time, and have previously been seen as a key milestone in deciding Johnson’s future. Removing a leader for misbehaviour on the eve of elections is hardly reputation-enhancing for a party. This is one reason why Conservative MPs may conclude that the timing isn’t right. Though it must be weighed, of course, against the reputation-damaging prospect of entering those elections with a leader (and a Chancellor) who has broken the law, misled parliament, and flouted the Ministerial Code.

Recent Constitution Unit research demonstrates that these are not esoteric concerns, but issues that really matter to the public. Our survey of over 6000 people, conducted in summer 2021 (before the partygate story broke) for the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project, found that the single most-valued attribute in politicians was honesty. Perhaps most strikingly, it found that when faced with a choice between politicians who ‘always act within the rules’, or politicians focused on ‘getting things done’ even if that sometimes means breaking the rules, 75% favoured the former, and only 6% the latter.

We followed up the survey with the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK, which reached very similar conclusions, and made a series of recommendations for change. Both exercises found very high levels of support for the courts and independent regulators – including enhanced powers for both. But the Citizens’ Assembly recognised that this must be balanced against maintaining political constraints in the constitution. It demanded a stronger role for parliament in policy-making, but also backed a continued role for MPs in policing behaviour. A key conclusion in the current context was that ‘In matters concerning the conduct of MPs we need to be able to rely on the political process, supported by independent regulators, to result in action by parliament’.

Generally, both of these exercises demonstrated low levels of trust in elected politicians, including specifically in government and the Prime Minister. There was clear appetite for strengthening the constraints upon them by unelected bodies. This clearly raises the question of whether the ultimate responsibility for maintaining integrity should rest with MPs, or whether somehow it should go somewhere else. It is possible to imagine a situation, within the constraints of a written constitution, where certain actions by ministers would constitute an immediate disqualification – but this would place the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether the rules had been broken on judges. In a well-functioning democracy, that would seem a retrograde step, and an abdication of responsibility by the political class. To hand the judiciary a power to remove a Prime Minister who had the support of his party would be a recipe for conflict, which could make democracy more fragile, rather than stronger. In countries such as Hungary and Poland, which are seen as experiencing ‘democratic backsliding’, government MPs have been persuaded to disempower the judiciary, even within a framework of written constitutions. Judges risk being painted as ‘elite’ and ‘out-of-touch’ if they come into conflict with the political class.

So the ultimate constitutional responsibility for maintaining integrity in the system, even in countries with written constitutions, rests with MPs – and particularly those of the governing party. In thinking through the options, MPs need to move beyond short-term party interest, and consider very seriously this fundamental constitutional role.

A pragmatic approach by MPs, based on looking at the polls, and judging matters by how the opposition party is faring in comparison to the governing party, is politically understandable. This matters, and may ultimately decide the outcome. But, as my colleague Alan Renwick has emphasised, such an approach is also shortsighted, and morally dubious in a context where public faith in politicians is at such a low ebb. Overlooking serious breaches in integrity risks destroying the reputation not only of the party, but of the democratic system itself.

We should now be entering the endgame for Johnson. Some principled Conservatives clearly recognise that: Lord (David) Wolfson of Tredegar, who was a junior Justice minister, resigned yesterday as a consequence. Meanwhile MPs are clearly being encouraged to express their support for the Prime Minister. They might usefully recall that when the same occurred over Owen Paterson, many swiftly regretted it, leading to an embarrassing reversal of position. The stakes this time are much higher. If Conservative MPs fail to appreciate their constitutional responsibilities, it could mark the end of integrity and trust in our system.

This is an expanded version of arguments made in a letter to the Times, published today.

About the author

Meg Russell FBA is Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Director of the Constitution Unit. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe, working on ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’.