Dave Penman: Standards in public strife

The various inquiries dogging the government do not seem to have affected it electorally. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only thing that matters to the PM, Dave Penman writes
BBC News

By Dave Penman

24 May 2021

I’m in the mood for dancin’, romancin’
Ooh I’m given’ it all tonight
I’m in the mood for chancin’
I feel like dancin’
Ooh so come on and hold me tight

If you google Nolan, you’re more likely to get this as an early result than the seven principles of public life. I think this is perhaps where our current prime minister has gone wrong. Chancin’ and romancin’ could be his Twitter handle, as they say, or etched on his gravestone for our older readers. I’ve never seen the PM dancin’ though and, quite frankly, the prospect fills me with dread having seen his predecessor’s efforts to ABBA.

As I write this on the morning after Super Thursday, I’m struck by two startling facts. Firstly, I’m in the mood for dancing, the 1979 hit for the Nolan Sisters, sold 673,850 copies in Japan. I post this without comment, as they say. Secondly, despite a month of headlines that have mired the prime minister in allegations of sleaze and misconduct, including lobbyists having privileged access to the cabinet, Tory donors being awarded PPE contracts and a financial scandal that is literally at his front door, the Conservatives under Johnson have just taken Hartlepool and are probably on course for an impressive set of mid-term results.
What does this tell us? At this moment in time, it may be that these issues do not really resonate electorally. When the #metoo scandal broke in Westminster, it was around the time of the usual opinion poll from Ipsos Mori that looks at trust in a range of occupations, called the Veracity Index. The pollsters decided to wait as they were worried the results would be skewed by all the negative headlines. When they did conduct the poll, they discovered that trust in politicians was so low, it didn’t really matter.

This is a government that famously wants to ignore the Westminster bubble and speak directly to voters. Are standards in government simply a bubble issue that this or any government can ride out without significant electoral impact? I don’t have the answer to that and I suspect few do. What mattered in 1995, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life were set up, probably doesn’t matter now in the same way to voters. Is this the lesson this government will take from Super Thursday? All good here, voters don’t give a fig.

The issue, though, is that standards in public life, and particularly at the heart of government, do matter. It’s not simply a moral question whether ministers grant preferential access to government to former colleagues working for private gain, whether being a friend of a minister gives you a better chance of winning a contract or, indeed, whether your conduct as a minister is held to the same standards that apply to the staff who serve you.

It matters in the end because decisions ministers take, including spending our money, are meant to be in our interest alone. That, of course, is as true for the civil service as it is for ministers.

A government that is confident about its decisions and conduct should welcome transparency and independence of oversight. 
Instead, over the last few months, information has had to be dragged from ministers by investigative journalists. The prime minister himself has danced on the head of a pin in his answers, trying to give the impression of being transparent whilst ensuring his partial responses won’t come back to haunt him when facts eventually appear. 

In the midst of this the prime minister had the chance, with the appointment of a new independent adviser on ministers’ interests, to demonstrate that some of these lessons were being learnt. The Committee on Standards in Public Life had recommended that the adviser should have the power to launch investigations. Instead, the prime minister, who is the sole arbiter of final decisions on the ministerial code, also retained the power to decide whether an investigation is even launched in the first place. 

The choice could not have been starker or come at a more opportune time for the PM. Had he wanted to rebuild trust among civil servants and the public, following the damage done by his ministerial code decision on the home secretary, that single reform would have helped immeasurably. Instead, he was chancin’ that he’d get away with it electorally, because in the end, that’s all that apparently matters. 

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union. He tweets @FDAgensec

Share this page
Read next