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17 June 2022

Can anyone make UK politics ethical again?

Perhaps the only way to ensure that ethics govern public life is not to let disgraceful charlatans like Boris Johnson get through the system.

By Philip Collins

The job of ethical adviser to the Prime Minister is once again vacant. Christopher Geidt has followed his predecessor Alex Allan in concluding that it is impossible to simultaneously take an ethical position and work for Boris Johnson. File this one alongside Minister for Brexit Opportunities as a job title that cancels itself out.

The delay to the publication of Geidt’s resignation letter displayed the concern in Downing Street about its contents. It was, indeed, explosive and written with great deliberation. After expressing his regret that the Prime Minister had not commented in public about being fined by the police, Geidt said he had been placed in an “impossible and odious” position when he was asked to sanction a “deliberate and purposeful” breach of the ministerial code. This is a reference to a rather puzzling request from the Prime Minister for Geidt’s approval to break the rules of the World Trade Organisation and extend tariffs on steel imports.

The precise reference to international law was, in fact, taken out of the text of the ministerial code in 2015 but Geidt witheringly described this request as one that would “make a mockery not only of respect for the code but licence the suspension of its provisions in governing the conduct of Her Majesty’s ministers”.

The ministerial code is not a legal document. Indeed, it has only been a public document at all, rather than an idea, since 1992 when it was published as Questions of Procedure for Ministers by John Major. This document was then renamed the ministerial code by Tony Blair in 1997. The provisions of the code, though, rest most of the effective power in the hands of the prime minister. Whether and how indiscretions are investigated is their prerogative to decide. The nominally independent ethics adviser does not have the authority to publish verdicts but can “require” publication “in a timely manner”. It is an intrinsically political process all the way through.

[See also: What does Christopher Geidt’s resignation mean for Labour?]

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Boris Johnson is now likely to tear up the system. It is probable that nobody would want the job as his ethics adviser, there being nothing to advise on. But if and when the UK again has a prime minister with a moral compass, the question arises of how best to maintain ethical standards in public life. It would be a good idea to wrestle some of the power from the prime minister by allowing alleged breaches of the code to be investigated without the authorisation of said prime minister. The independent adviser also ought to be able to launch their own investigations.

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It would also be desirable to clarify the murky convention on ministerial resignation. In December 2017, Damian Green resigned as first secretary of state when Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, judged that he had twice breached the honesty requirement of the “Seven Principles of Public Life”, which are set out in the ministerial code. Green’s conduct contrasts very markedly with that of the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who was found in November 2020 to have broken the ministerial code but kept her job because the Prime Minister overruled his own ethics adviser.

We cannot be too pure about this. The application of ethics to politics is complex. Michael Walzer is the best of the philosophers who has explored the concept of “dirty hands”, which refers to the practice, common in politics, of doing a minor bad to procure a major good. Then there is all the skulduggery, cynicism and hypocrisy that are commonly justified in politics as the means by which good is sometimes done. It would not be wise to rush too far towards formalising all the rules just because the Prime Minister is a man of no moral fibre. Regulations are often rewritten after scandals but that is not always a sound idea.

The ministerial code contains a clause about the “overarching duty” of ministers to comply with the law. You might have thought this would go without saying but Johnson does not care. If he negotiates a terrible agreement on Northern Ireland and then breaks international law in repairing it, then so what?

He will need to be forcibly reminded that it matters. In How Democracies Die, their fine book about the state of contemporary politics, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make the important point that democracies are best protected not by law but by compliance. Good norm-respecting behaviour, followed day in and day out, by leaders who care about the moral repute of the polity is the only way that a democracy can claim to be superior to other systems of government. They go on to point out that political parties are supposed to be custodians of this principle. A political party is meant to screen out individuals who cannot be expected to follow the rules. Once upon a time, the Republican Party denied Henry Ford a presidential run for just this reason.

The culprit of this latest episode is the Conservative Party. Every MP who put Johnson through to the members’ ballot in 2019; every Tory member who voted for him; every MP who serves as a minister in his government; every pusillanimous cabinet flunkey who is along for the ministerial car ride – it was and is your responsibility not to offer to the nation someone manifestly unfit to be prime minister.

The “Seven Principles of Public Life”, set out in 1995 to govern conduct in office, are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership. We now have a prime minister who scores none out of seven. In the end, the best way, perhaps the only way, to ensure that ethics govern public life is not to let disgraceful charlatans like Boris Johnson work their way through the system. He can no more behave well than the scorpion can cease to sting. It’s who he is and he knows no better. The ethical opprobrium attaches to his party. His shame is in fact theirs.

[See also: Who in their right mind would replace Christopher Geidt?]