Constitutional standards matter: the new Prime Minister must not forget that voters care about the honesty and integrity of their leaders

Tomorrow, it is expected that the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Whoever is appointed will have a number of high priority issues competing for their attention. Peter Riddell argues that constitutional standards should be near the top of the new PM’s to do list. He calls for a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to be appointed, and warns against interfering with the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson.

The new Prime Minister is going to have such a large in tray of urgent decisions that there is a danger that the ethical and constitutional issues that largely brought down Boris Johnson will be neglected. There is an even worse risk that the wrong lessons will be learned from these events and that the future standards regime will be weaker than before, particularly over the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

During the regional hustings meetings of the past few weeks, there have been hardly any references to the controversies over standards that so dramatically undermined Johnson’s position among Conservative MPs. As striking, and worrying, have been the recurrent attacks by Liz Truss’s supporters on unelected advisers and regulators, whether the civil service, the Bank of England, City and business regulators, or ethical watchdogs. In particular, while Rishi Sunak has said that he would quickly appoint a new Independent Adviser to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Lord (Christopher) Geidt in mid-June, Truss has been more equivocal.

Truss has so far refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser, arguing that she personally has ‘always acted with integrity’ and understands the difference between right and wrong. She has said that ‘one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is that we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations’. While she would ‘ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistle-blow’, she believes that ‘ethics and responsibility cannot be out-sourced to an adviser’.

This view confuses the roles of advisers/regulators and ministers. In the case of the Independent Adviser, there is no outsourcing of ethics and responsibility. What the Adviser is being asked to do is to establish the facts about whether the Ministerial Code has been broken, while an elected politician, in this case the Prime Minister, decides whether a minister should be punished and what form any sanction should take. In that sense the Prime Minister is the guardian of the final judgement on ethics and responsibility. And there is now general agreement that there should be a range of sanctions, and not just resignation.

The position of the Independent Adviser has become so important because two, Alex Allan and Lord Geidt, have resigned within a two-year period, in both cases due to disputes with Johnson. In Allan’s case, Johnson brushed aside his view that Priti Patel’s behaviour towards officials could be seen as bullying in breach of the Code, while Lord Geidt clashed with Downing Street on a variety of issues and eventually concluded he had been put in an intolerable position. There have been calls from these two former Advisers and the Committee on Standards in Public Life for the Adviser’s position to be strengthened by giving them an unchecked right to initiate investigations and to advise about whether the Ministerial Code has been broken. The government has only agreed to the Adviser being allowed to initiate inquiries after obtaining the consent of the Prime Minister. Moreover, after Lord Geidt resigned, Johnson asked the Cabinet Office to review the Adviser’s role and method of appointment. Nothing has emerged about the review since the leadership contest began.

The Independent Adviser has proved to be very useful for Prime Ministers – and the civil service – since the role was created in 2006. Before then, and occasionally since, Prime Ministers have turned to the Cabinet Secretary of the day, and other senior civil servants, to carry out investigations into allegations about the conduct of ministers. But that has invariably been unsatisfactory since civil servants, however eminent, are being asked to investigate their political masters. However rigorous their inquiries, officials cannot, by definition, be independent. It is no good saying ‘leave it all to us politicians since we are elected and accountable’. A minister can be inhibited in challenging a fellow minister in order to establish the facts, as was memorably shown during the Profumo affair in 1963 when the erring minister initially bluffed his way through questioning by other senior members of the government.

It is far better to have an Independent Adviser, who is knowledgeable about politics but is not part of the Whitehall system. He or she can establish the facts so that the Prime Minister can then decide what, if anything, should happen and whether a minister should remain in office. After all this year’s rows, both the method of appointment and the operation of the Adviser should be more transparent – arguably with a larger role for parliament in ensuring accountability and resolving any disputes, as John Major argued in his evidence to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in July.

If the new Prime Minister fails to appoint an Independent Adviser or substantially weakens the role, it will a big step backwards and send the wrong signal about their commitment to improving standards in public life.

A parallel issue arises over the inquiry by the Commons Privileges Committee into whether Boris Johnson intentionally misled MPs in response to questions about Downing Street parties and COVID-19 regulations. The inquiry has already begun but some of Johnson’s strongest allies and supporters of Truss have described it as a ‘kangaroo court’, and called for it to be cancelled. Truss herself has said that she would vote to end the inquiry, although she does not see MPs being asked to do so. Such a vote would be very divisive. No one knows what the inquiry will conclude and the final decision on sanctions lies with the Commons as a whole.

Apart from the dangerous precedent of interfering with an inquiry – which was approved without a single vote against it – while it is under way, the new Prime Minister might reflect on an American parallel from 48 years ago when incoming President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon and suffered politically and electorally. It is short-sighted to interfere with established processes.

Of course, most people are now focused on the sharply rising cost of energy and food, and higher interest and mortgage rates, but addressing these urgent issues does not justify neglect of standards in public life. As the Unit’s Citizen’s Assembly on Democracy in the UK has shown, voters also care about the honesty and integrity of their rulers.

About the author

Sir Peter Riddell is an honorary professor at the Constitution Unit at UCL and a former Commissioner for Public Appointments and past Director of the Institute for Government.

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