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20 March 2024

Westminster’s downward spiral

Boris Johnson and his court brought an already corrupt system to new lows. Can ethics be restored to politics?

By Marina Wheeler

John Bowers KC isn’t one to sit idle. Having practised as a barrister, sat as a part-time judge, authored 15 books and been appointed the principal of Brasenose College, Oxford, now he has written a fast-paced, hard-hitting and readable book about policing ethics in public life. 

Bowers recounts the moment he knew he had to write it. Priti Patel, then home secretary, was found by the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Alex Allan, to have bullied her officials, breaching the ministerial code. The former prime minister Boris Johnson advised his colleagues via WhatsApp to “form a square around the Prittster”, but took no action. Bowers found this “outrageous”.

Bowers’ thesis is that Johnson’s administration or  “court” was “corrupt and/or immoral” and very bad for government. It is very good however, essential even, for the narrative of Downward Spiral. Navigating through the sleaze and scandal, the book asks whether the “guard rails designed to prevent a slide downwards [are] robust and resilient”. Are there “too few balances and too many cheques” in our system? 

Bad behaviour and corruption in politics is nothing new. The current ethics architecture was constructed after John Major’s “back to basics” campaign came adrift, Bowers writes, exposing ministerial extramarital affairs (including his own), then the illicit sale of arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the “cash-for-questions” scandal. To restore integrity, Major convened an ethics commission under Michael Nolan whose report enumerated the “seven principles of public life”: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership. New Labour pledged to clean up politics but became mired in scandal too: allegations that peerages were being sold led to Tony Blair being questioned by the Metropolitan Police.

Against this background, Bowers recognises that “the decline did not start with [Johnson] and arguably the spiral has continued since his departure”. But a “bad ‘un” like Johnson, Bowers posits, posed a particular challenge to the system. Surveying the Westminster operation, Bowers sees “under-regulated politicians” and a “state [that] needs rewiring”.

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Public appointments should be made on merit but the system, he says, has been subverted and politicised by ministers intent on promoting their own supporters. Blair explains how New Labour saw it: “We were elected on a bold manifesto with a landslide majority but with many institutions geared instinctively against our proposals.” This “necessitated an extensive rebalance which viewed out of context could appear excessive”. I imagine the administration that took office in 2019 to deliver the Brexit vote had a similar perspective.

Bowers sets out a compelling case to better manage these appointments, but I am sorry to see Kate Bingham cited as one made “without competition”. At the request of the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, Bingham, a venture capitalist with 30 years’ experience in biotech, chaired the Vaccine Taskforce in 2020. During a national emergency, she worked for six months as an unpaid volunteer – an arrangement not usually subject to competitive recruitment. She was, as Bowers recognises, “spectacularly successful” in her role: the UK became the first country in the world to launch a national Covid vaccination programme. Yet she was hounded by the Guardian, which ran more than 20 hostile articles referring to the fact she was married to a Tory MP as “evidence” of cronyism and corruption. “Yes, I happened to be married to a Conservative MP and minister,” she later wrote. “Since when is that a crime… And what did that have to do with my own political views? Are wives still viewed as chattels?”

Over in the House of Lords, Bowers finds an ancient institution struggling to maintain legitimacy, but undermined by the elevation of mates, cronies and party donors. As someone who has “made virtually no contribution to the House”, Baron Evgeny Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation is given as an example. The House of Lords Appointments Committee (Holac) is a filter of sorts, but the PM has the final say. Bowers would like to see a statutory Holac as part of broader House of Lords reform.

Lobbying needs better regulation. Legitimate if conducted openly, it becomes “chumocracy” behind closed doors, writes Bowers. Transparency is key. A watchdog, the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL), has gaps in its coverage. David Cameron lobbied “intensively” for Greensill Capital to be admitted to a government Covid finance scheme. But because he was an employee of Greensill, not an external consultant, his activities fell outside the ORCL’s rules. Nonetheless, Bowers recommends all lobbyists should be required to register as a minimum.

Fierce debate is raging around the civil service, which Bowers distils with balance. Being impartial and non-corrupt, the service is viewed by some as a “priceless gift”. Others see a tension between civil servants – cautious and “very attached to formal procedures” – and politicians who consider themselves as “can-do” people. Politicians have responded to what they see as an unresponsive civil service by using their own special advisers, or “Spads”. This undermines civil service morale, as does being treated as a hostile “blob”.

The case for reform is strong. Traditionally peopled by generalists, the service now needs staff with specialist skills – science graduates, with experience in industry, technology and project management – and a better institutional framework that vets key positions, promotes on the basis of performance and provides accountability.

Among Bowers’ proposals to beef up Westminster’s regulatory ethics is putting the various posts and bodies that have grown up over time on to a statutory footing (so they have more defined powers and can’t be abolished at the whim of an individual PM). He also proposes introducing more judge-led regulation, with legal representation in formal hearings. Like Bowers, I am a lawyer. Many of my dearest friends are lawyers and judges. But I am faintly depressed, and worried, by the prospect of more lawyers and judges policing politicians. Decision-making that involves the judiciary may be justifiable for potentially career-ending disciplinary hearings where due process is lacking, but not to regulate jobs that civil servants and ministers take after leaving public service – a task now performed by what Bowers calls the “toothless” Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. The delay inherent in a legal process risks stifling much-needed interchange between the public and private sectors.

Turning ad hoc committees into statutory bodies also means their decisions become challengeable by way of judicial review. This risks delay, upsetting the separation of powers and undermining the authority of the judiciary. The corollary of judges exercising power in the political sphere (or taking decisions perceived to be “political”) is greater scrutiny and criticism. In 2016, after the divisional court ruled against the government in the first case brought by Gina Miller on the mechanics of leaving the EU, the Daily Mail ran an ill-informed front page deriding the presiding judges as “Enemies of the people”. The lord chancellor issued a statement defending the independence of the judiciary, but a free press is entitled to publish this kind of thing. Placing judges into the fray of politics could weaken the system, not strengthen it.

There was probably never a golden age of standards. In the words of former MP and Electoral Commission member David Howarth, “We have much more transparency than in previous decades. Things were possibly even worse then but we knew less about it.” Greater knowledge of politicians leads to a decline in public trust. Their behaviour aside, our democratic system itself seems disenchanting. Election time brings showers of promises, which go unfulfilled. Politicians imply they have a greater power to improve our lives than they actually possess – which leads to an inevitable discontentment with democracy and liberalism.

Yet Downward Spiral contains optimism. Bowers finds success in some regulatory bodies. The Electoral Commission acts as “democracy’s referee”, which “can bare its claws by investigations and enforcement”. The National Audit Office is “the institutional hero of the general PPE tale”, having shed light on the use of “VIP lane” contracts to procure specialist medical equipment during the pandemic. And the Committee on Standards in Public Life “keeps the spirit of the Nolan report alive”.

Bowers concedes the system has operated as he felt it should, neutralising poor behaviour at important junctures: Cameron’s “lobbyfest par excellence”, described by the Conservative chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee as “tasteless, slapdash, unbecoming”, was ineffective. So too with Johnson. David Wolfson, who resigned as a justice minister in 2022 over the partygate lockdown breaches, tells Bowers that “the rule of law is threatened when those who make the law treat it as unimportant”. In the end, Johnson lost the confidence of his MPs and the system spat him out.

But our democracy is too important to leave to chance. Bowers is right: “We can do better and we must.”

Downward Spiral: Collapsing Public Standards and How to Restore Them
John Bowers
Manchester University Press, 312pp, £20

Marina Wheeler is a barrister, mediator and author

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[See also: Europe’s race delusions]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024