The final year of Boris Johnson’s premiership was dominated by ethical scandals – from Paterson, to partygate, and of course the Pincher episode that proved the final straw for many, provoking the ministerial resignations that led Johnson to step down.
But despite ethical standards having been the biggest topic in politics for months, until the latest hustings in Birmingham, the question of how the two leadership candidates would maintain them, had hardly featured in the campaign. In Birmingham – after being repeatedly pressed – Liz Truss refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser, arguing that the UK has too many ‘advisers and independent bodies... rules and regulations’ and emphasising her own personal integrity.
Aware of apparent regret among some Conservatives about the way Johnson’s premiership ended and his continuing popularity with the grassroots, Truss and Rishi Sunak have resisted distancing themselves from him too much or putting too much emphasis on the reasons for his departure. But whoever becomes PM will need to recognise that – without active management – the issue that defeated their predecessor has the potential to derail their premiership too.
Public trust in politicians is low, and there was a clear link between growing concern about Johnson’s ethical behaviour and his declining popularity in the polls. With external pressures mounting on the next government, a PM who fails to tackle outstanding problems in our public standards system would needlessly undermine their new premiership.
The personality and leadership of the prime minister are key to the way others in government behave. But so is the system which is in place to uphold the rules. The new PM may be confident in their own integrity but that does not mean that the advisers and independent bodies their predecessors have put in place are superfluous.
The role played by the adviser on ministerial interests – a position that has been vacant since Lord Geidt left in June – can be of crucial importance to a PM. Having an independent figure – neither a politician nor a civil servant – able to conduct investigations into matters of fact and recommend a course of action allows a PM to distance themself from a scandal and step in only as final decision-maker. This avoids accusations of cronyism and should help maintain consistency in application of the standards the PM sets in their ministerial code.
Rather than resist making a new appointment, one of the first priorities for the new prime minister should be to choose a new adviser, and indeed – learning from Johnson’s experience – to strengthen their role. Appointing a capable replacement, and giving them the power to start investigations into potential breaches of the ministerial code without requiring the prime minister’s permission, would show that the new leader has learnt from Johnson’s mistakes and reinforce perceptions of their own personal integrity.
Ahead of the leadership result on 5 September, both candidates should also commit to respecting the privileges committee inquiry into whether Johnson misled the House of Commons about parties in No.10. Truss has cast doubt on whether she will do this – saying that she would vote to halt the inquiry given the chance, but the investigation approved by the whole House of Commons should be allowed to run its course without attacks on its processes or the MPs involved. It may no longer be about Johnson’s future as prime minister, but the question of what constitutes deliberate misleading of parliament by a minister matters hugely. MPs need to show the public that they can maintain the effectiveness of the House of Commons. If the candidates undermine the inquiry, they will send a message to the public that they are happy to continue to govern in Johnson’s mould.
After 18 months of scandals, there is no shortage of further ideas for how the new prime minister could improve standards in government. Nigel Boardman’s recommendations – made after the David Cameron Greensill scandal – included strengthening the requirements on those who move between public and private sector jobs, by making them legally enforceable. And the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published a report last November with many recommendations to help ministers uphold the ethical standards. The government has still not responded to either report. The next prime minister should make this a priority.
Public trust in government was damaged by Johnson and his team; that loss of trust has already made things harder for the next prime minister, at a time when the government is going to need to make some very difficult decisions about foreseeable challenges. Showing that they understand the public anger that resulted from Johnson’s cavalier attitude towards standards and good behaviour will allow the next prime minister to mark the difference between them and their predecessor. Liz Truss told Sky News that she did not want to issue new rules about behaviour in government – but she should show that she is firm about upholding the ones that already exist.