Angela Rayner today promised that a Labour Government would end the “bad chaps” era of Government, following a decade of “sleaze” and “corruption” under the Conservatives.
Announcing her plans to enforce new rules on the behaviour of Government ministers, Labour’s Deputy Leader said that the so-called ‘good chaps’ theory of Government, which relies on ministers to respect rules and convention, without enforcement, had been “tested to the point of destruction” in recent years.
“It has long been assumed – mostly by those who think of themselves as the ‘good chaps’ in question – that all those who rise to high office will be such ‘good chaps’”, she told an event at the Institute for Government.
“The system relies on leaders acting in good faith. A system that has surely now been toppled.”
Byline Times has been at the forefront of exposing the weaknesses in this so-called ‘good chaps’ theory of Government.
As our Editor Hardeep Matharu wrote back in 2021: “Britain’s unwritten constitution, largely based on norms and conventions and predicated on the notion that ‘good chaps’ will hold the reins of power, is no longer fit for purpose – if it ever really was – in the face of bad actors unwilling to play by the rules.”
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was described by Rayner today as a “confidence trickster” played a large role in undermining this ‘good chaps’ approach to Government.
His refusal to sack ministers, such as the former Home Secretary Priti Patel, even after they were found to have broken the rules, succeeded in undermining faith in the existing conventions that govern ministerial behaviour.
Under these rules, the power to launch investigations into ministerial conduct lies solely with the Prime Minister, who is free to pick and choose his own ethics adviser.
However, under Rayner’s plans, the power to initiate investigations would be passed to the new Independent Ethics and Integrity Commission, whose head would no longer be appointed by Downing Street.
Crucially, the body would also have the power to recommend sanctions on ministers who breach anti-lobbying rules after leaving office.
In recent years multiple ministers, including Johnson himself, have been criticised for ignoring the existing appointments watchdog, before taking up new jobs outside of Government.
Rayner told Byline Times that Labour’s replacement body would have the “teeth” to recommend significant fines on ministers who ignore the rules.
“We will consult on the level of fines and it may be different for for very different misdemeanours”, Rayner told this paper.
Some of the other details about how the new watchdog will operate remain unclear. Rayner also told Byline Times that the party would consult before making a decision on whether the House of Lords would fall under its remit.
It is also unclear what protections will be put in place to prevent the Prime Minister from effectively overruling decisions by the Commission. Rayner insisted that there was a democratic need to retain some influence from Downing Street and Parliament over the body.
As we saw with Johnson and the Partygate investigation, there will always be tensions when elected politicians come under the scrutiny of unelected officials.
As we’ve also seen with Labour’s own internal process for investigating its MPs, it is political leaders who are ultimately held responsible for such decisions, regardless of how independent from the leadership the process may be.
Where a Labour Government chooses to draw these lines between independent officials and elected politicians will form a crucial part of whether Labour is successful in its aim of genuinely cleaning up standards in public life.
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However, the broad thrust of Rayner’s speech was hugely welcome. After more than a decade in which standards have been systematically eroded by a succession of “bad chaps” in Government, Labour’s Deputy Leader showed that she both understands the importance of cleaning up our national politics, and has a plan to do so.
How that plan is implemented, and how rigorous the new standards turn out to be, will decide whether or not a future Labour Government can really leave the era of ‘bad chaps’ Government behind us.