There is no one issue that led to Boris Johnson's downfall, but the predominant one is integrity

"The disconnect between what Johnson said and did was what ultimately did for him"
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

By Dave Penman

07 Jul 2022

When I started to write this column, the prime minister was holed up in Downing Street, but I entered a lift to get to my office and by the time I’d come out on the third floor he’d resigned. I’ve now had to rewrite several parts in a rush. Cheers, Boris.

Inevitably in politics, there is not one single issue that has led us to here, but the predominant one is integrity. When interviewed yesterday on Talk TV, I was asked why this matters. Whilst I was a bit surprised at the question, I responded by saying that every single day in government, your morality and integrity are tested by the decisions you have to take. It's why governing and campaigning are two very different skills sets.

Those issues have dogged Johnson throughout his career, and the danger is that once he’s gone, the assumption will be we can go back to the way it was. It was Johnson that was the problem, not the system. The PM will be the ultimate arbiter and the "good chap principle" will apply.

It’s interesting that Johnson’s downfall, around his handling of the Chris Pincher sexual harassment scandal, is a consequence of the system he has fought so hard to retain. The ministerial code, and its application as a standards document for ministerial conduct, lies entirely in his gift. Only the PM can authorise an investigation, which, of course, at that time would remain secret, and he is the only arbiter of its conclusions.

Whatever moral judgement he brought to that decision – and I doubt from these events as we understand them that Johnson even thought he had a decision to make – the opaque system is designed primarily to retain political control of events, not regulate conduct. That is why, despite the Committee on Standards in Public Life repeatedly calling on the system of ministerial code investigations to be made independent of the prime minister, he has refused. And, of course, the whole system has been exposed as a farce when it comes to any question of how the prime minister's own conduct can be investigated.

"The danger is that once he’s gone, the assumption will be we can go back to the way it was. It was Johnson that was the problem, not the system"

When Johnson refused to accept that the home secretary had breached the ministerial code – despite having been found guilty of bullying civil servants, including shouting and swearing at them – he said there was no place in government for bullying behaviour. On Tuesday, he said there was no place in government for abuse of power and predatory behaviour, whilst at the same time admitting he kept and then promoted a minister who had been found guilty of that very behaviour.

Meanwhile, he has refused to appoint successor to Lord Giedt, the independent adviser on minister’s interests, which means if there is a complaint about a minister from a civil servant, it cannot be dealt with. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, in his evidence to the Public Administration and Connotational Affairs Committee last week, said: “There is a role that is actually spelled out in the ministerial code that the prime minister can ask the Cabinet Office or the cabinet secretary to establish the facts, but the decisions and the adjudication, and the advice about that on the ministerial code aspects, have to come through the ndependent adviser.”

The disconnect between what Johnson said and did was, I suppose, what ultimately did for him. That and an extraordinarily selfless act of Lord McDonald, exposing the lies from No.10. It’s ironic that he was probably able to do more to protect civil servants after he retired, than he was able to do whilst a permanent secretary.

The prime minister’s own conduct and the way in which he has point-blank refused to regulate the conduct of ministers loyal to him, has exposed the entire system as woefully inadequate. It was, though, always inadequate. I recall arguing with Cabinet Office officials about the opaque nature of the process for dealing with complaints in the wake of the #MeToo scandal in Westminster. For the first time, the ministerial code contained a reference to ministers not being allowed to bully civil servants, as if that in itself would solve the problem, but there was no subsequent reform of the system.

This was under Theresa May as prime minister, who don’t forget appointed Pincher to the whips office after allegations had been made about his conduct, and who restored the whip to two MPs in advance of her vote of confidence whilst accusations of sexual misconduct were still being investigated. Johnson is an extreme example of the failings of the ‘good chap principle’, but he is not the only one.

A new prime minister needs to quickly restore trust in the integrity of government and the conduct of ministers. They do not need to reinvent the wheel, just do exactly what it says on the tin, and quickly implement in full the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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