Johnson breached ethics rules over Daily Mail column job

Committee chair Eric Pickles says breach is “further illustration of how out of date the government’s business rules are”
Photo: Mark Thomas/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

28 Jun 2023

Boris Johnson ‘clearly and unambiguously’ broke the government’s revolving-doors rules by taking up a column with the Daily Mail before seeking advice, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has said.

The former prime minister and MP was unveiled as a columnist for the newspaper earlier this month, but only told ACOBA half an hour before the appointment was made public and after the paper had trailed the announcement on its frontpage.

In his letter to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, committee chair Eric Pickles said the breach is “a further illustration of how out of date the government’s business rules are”.

He said the rules were designed to offer guidance when “good chaps” could be relied on to observe the letter and the spirit of the rules.

“If it ever existed, that time has long passed and the contemporary world has outgrown the rules,” Lord Pickles said.

This failure to follow unwritten rules is forcing ACOBA to spend time on low-risk applications like Johnsons’ at the expense of more complex and challenging cases, Pickles said.

New areas of corruption are also not monitored because they were not envisaged when the rules were drawn up, added the chair.

For Johnson’s breach, Pickles said the government should take into consideration the low risk nature of the appointment, and the need to reform the system to deal with roles in proportion to the risks posed when deciding what action to take.

The watchdog has been calling for reform of the revolving doors rules framework for several years, and has said it  should be given powers to hand out sanctions for non-compliance. ACOBA also wants greater clarity from government about what is and is not acceptable to so that resources can be focused on complex cases. Low-risk cases like Johnson’s would be removed from the current advice process under the committee’s recommendations.

ACOBA and the Committee on Standards in Public Life both set out a series of proposals to improve the system in 2021.

The government has committed to enhance the rules and a Downing Street spokesperson reiterated this position yesterday.

“We are committed to improving the business appointment rules. It’s important we get this right. We do want to go further. We’re considering the methods to strengthen the system and encourage compliance with the rules. That is a piece of work that’s been taking place with Lord Pickles,” they said.

In Sunak’s first speech as PM, in October, he promised to bring back “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” after a year of scandals under Johnson’s premiership.

Pickles said in the letter to Dowden that the government is working on a range of “welcome” proposals across the current "ethics landscape", but he is “concerned that if the government waits until these reforms can all be implemented together, it risks further scandal in the meantime, particularly as ACOBA’s [ideas] could be implemented in a matter of weeks”.

The committee also published advice on a series of other appointments, including former Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar joining the board of Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, ex-COP26 chair Alok Sharma taking on public speaking work and ex-culture secretary Nadine Dorries joining Johnson as a Daily Mail columnist.

Meanwhile, the Guardian revealed that Labour leader Keir Starmer failed to consult the watchdog when leaving his position as director of public prosecutions, a permanent secretary-level role at the Crown Prosecution Service, in 2013 and becoming a part-time consultant at Mishcon de Reya.

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