Cabinet secretary Simon Case has been urged to remind press officers in Downing Street of their duty not to lie to the media in the wake of a series of untrue statements following the resignation of former deputy chief whip Christopher Pincher.
In a blog published before the resignations of chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid sparked an avalanche of resignations from government, Institute for Government senior fellow Jill Rutter said the No.10 press office was “establishing a pattern” of being prepared to lie to get out of trouble.
No.10's handling of the Pincher scandal was seen as the final straw for Sunak, Javid and several other politicians. Rutter pointed to former Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Simon McDonald’s intervention in the scandal yesterday – when he said claims Johnson did not know about previous complaints against the MP were “inaccurate”.
She urged Case to stress the civil service code and official communications guidance obligations for staff.
She added that the No.10 press office had continued lying in relation to the Partygate scandal until Sue Gray’s full report was published in May.
Rutter expressed astonishment that the prime minister’s official spokesperson – Max Blain – had not lost his job after apologising for official lines of response that claimed no Covid restrictions rules had been broken when the truth was different. Blain was forced to apologise in May for “failings” in the way the Partygate scandal had been handled.
“Amazingly, that apology was not followed by the spokesman’s resignation or dismissal. It should have been,” Rutter said. “The prime minister’s official spokesman cannot double as a liar. Both the press and the public need to know that they can trust what is being said in the name of the prime minister and the government.
“And that action should not have rested with the prime minister – it should have been the cabinet secretary who made clear that the lies had besmirched the civil service’s reputation and demanded their departure.”
Rutter pointed to Case’s appearance before parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last week, when the cab sec suggested Blain’s apology related to a breach of trust with the media rather than for breaking the civil service code.
“This was a remarkably contorted justification for clearly inappropriate behaviour,” she said. “Honesty is not just the best policy – it is the policy. And lying clearly breaches it.
“Case’s equivocation suggests the only problem with lying and the only reason for apologising was that this had compromised the relationships between press officers and the media.
“It may be that in the Pincher case, the integrity of the No.10 press office and of civil service press officers more broadly is just another piece of collateral damage from the prime minister’s behaviour. But that integrity was already in question after Partygate.”
Rutter said that taxpayers do not pay for civil servants to lie to them via the media.
“The prime minister may not accept that. But the cabinet secretary should make clear that he does,” she said.