Sun 18 April 2021

Leighton Andrews explains why the lack of action over the Home Secretary’s bullying was set up in advance through the Government’s ideological fixation on Brexit and assault on the rule of law

The foreword to the Ministerial Code written by Boris Johnson in August 2019 gives the full context of why the Home Secretary Priti Patel was allowed to stay in the Cabinet.

Its opening sentence reads:

The mission of this Government is to deliver Brexit on 31st October for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our whole United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth. 

The Government may have failed its 31 October mission, but the Brexit context is everything. Later on, the Prime Minister’s Foreword states:

Crucially, there must be no delay – and no misuse of process or procedure by any individual Minister that would seek to stall the collective decisions necessary to deliver Brexit and secure the wider changes needed across our United Kingdom. 

This is the Ministerial Code used as a weapon in the culture war. Everything, including standards in government, is seen through the Brexit lens. Brexiteers like Patel are safe. The mission to deliver Brexit overrides what we had come to understand were the acceptable standards of public life. 

Awkwardly, the Prime Minister’s Foreword also states:

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.

Bullying, leaking, misuse of taxpayers’ money: well, all those have been evident. The Prime Minister has contradicted his independent advisor on the bullying issue; two of the alleged chief leakers have departed; the National Audit Office has produced a scathing report on the separate high-priority channel for friends of MPs and ministers to win COVID procurement contracts at a high cost to the taxpayer. 

But no matter, if you’re a Brexiter. The PM will get his mates to form a square around you – a much better defence than the ‘protective ring’ Matt Hancock claimed had been thrown around care homes. 

The Assault on the Rule of Law

Boris Johnson has never believed that the rules apply to him. He is the first Prime Minister to have been censured by both the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner for breaking the rules. In his first few weeks, he sought a prorogation of Parliament subsequently judged illegal by the Supreme Court. His Internal Market Bill breaks international law “in a limited and specific way”. 

Johnson’s rule-breaking is a policy, not an accident. In a system where so many of the rules rest on unwritten consensus on norms and behaviours, Johnson tests what he can get away with. And his adherents want more.  

The think-tank Policy Exchange, some of whose authors have been keen to stress their role in writing last year’s Conservative manifesto, has been developing proposals for a radical constitutional re-ordering.

The propose re-branding the Supreme Court as an Upper Court of Appeal, essentially nullifying its role as a constitutional court, strengthening ministerial oversight of judicial appointments and limiting judicial review,  the re-establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty but with the executive’s powers reinforced, limits on the Human Rights Act and on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the politicization of public appointments, something the Commissioner on Public Appointments, the respected former political editor Peter Riddell, has warned about. 

The Queen’s Speech announced a Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights commission whose members, says Policy Exchange, must be ‘united by a shared appreciation of the UK’s traditional constitution’. Since we are not yet a hundred years from the establishment of the Irish Free State, it’s not entirely clear what that ‘traditional constitution’ might mean.

But this is an agenda based on the notion of ‘the will of the people’, enshrined in the Ministerial Code as the mission to deliver Brexit. If Johnson gets his way, we can expect it to be implemented ruthlessly, just as the majoritarian vote in the referendum was used ruthlessly to remove a variety of citizenship rights from UK citizens, and as ruthlessly as dissident long-standing Conservatives were thrown overboard for their summer rebellion last year.

An Office of Government Ethics

We’ve had 25 years since Lord Nolan’s report on public standards was adopted. The Nolan rules depended on a shared political consensus about the norms which underpin standards in public life and a media that endorsed those standards and ways of operating and refused to downplay breaches of norms simply because the politician affected shared their views on a particular issue. 

In the UK today, attitudes to Brexit determine attitudes to political norms, and the Ministerial Code is simply a weapon in the culture war. The Nolan rules, in the jargon of today, need a reset, and they need statutory underpinning. We need an Office of Government Ethics, properly resourced, staffed and empowered, accountable to Parliament not Government, in place of the advisory bodies and rules which have been ignored or shredded by the Prime Minister. But don’t hold your breath.

Leighton Andrews is Professor of Public Leadership at Cardiff Business School and a former Welsh Government minister

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