Following the publication of Sue Gray’s report update, the Prime Minister announced his intention to reform the Downing Street machine. Robert Hazell, author of an authoritative study of the way special advisers work, argues that this presents an opportunity to revise the code of conduct that regulates their behaviour, and that incoming Chief of Staff Steve Barclay would be wise to take it.
Towards the end of his statement in the House of Commons on 31 January Boris Johnson said that he would ‘sort out what Sue Gray rightly calls the “fragmented and complicated” leadership structures of Downing Street’. He undertook to do two things:
- create an Office of the Prime Minister, with a Permanent Secretary to lead Number 10.
- review the civil service and special adviser codes of conduct to make sure that those codes are properly enforced.
Three days later Munira Mirza, the PM’s Head of Policy, resigned, swiftly followed by the resignations of Dan Rosenfield, the PM’s Chief of Staff, Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary, and Jack Doyle, director of communications. On 5 February it was announced that the Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay was to be the new Chief of Staff. This blog is addressed to him, and the new Permanent Secretary in Number 10, as they consider what changes might be required to the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct. It draws upon the research done for a book by Ben Yong and myself, Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do, and why they matter, a year-long project including over 100 interviews with ministers, special advisers and senior officials.
The first point to make is that under the Ministerial Code and the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct it is the PM who is responsible for the special advisers in No 10. That is clearly spelled out in paragraph 3.3 of the Ministerial Code, and paragraph 9 of the Code of Conduct, which contain identical wording:
The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.
The Ministerial Code goes on to say:
Individual Ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.
And the Code of Conduct states:
It is also the appointing Minister’s responsibility to ensure that their special adviser(s) adhere to this Code of Conduct.
With the previous paragraph in the Code of Conduct reminding Special Advisers that:
Special advisers are bound by the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.
So there is no wriggle room here. If special advisers in Number 10 have fallen below the required standards of integrity and honesty, the PM is responsible; and the PM is accountable to parliament and the public for their conduct. But the second point to make is that although the PM may be ultimately responsible, to expect him to look after the management of all of his special advisers is completely unrealistic. The PM is an exceptionally busy person. So it is a responsibility which must be delegated: the rest of this blog considers, to whom. Should the management and conduct of special advisers be the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary, the Permanent Secretary, or the Chief of Staff?