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9 August 2018

Why hasn’t Boris Johnson been punished for breaching the ministerial code?

Johnson broke rules on ministerial appointments over his Daily Telegraph column but will keep his job. Our toothless watchdog desperately needs reform. 

By Patrick Maguire

Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column is famously well-remunerated but it is causing the former foreign secretary no end of trouble. His latest piece, in which he compared women wearing the niqab to bank robbers, has prompted disciplinary action by his party. His decision to accept the job just three days after quitting last month has now earned him censure for breaching the ministerial code.

Departing ministers are supposed to observe a minimum three-month waiting period before accepting paid work elsewhere, which Johnson ignored. Having quit on 9 July, he signed a contract with the Telegraph on 12 July. The return of his column was announced on 14 July.

This chain of events broke several other rules. Ministers must also consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), the government’s independent watchdog, before taking a job within two years of their resignation. Johnson didn’t do that either.

Nor, by allowing the Telegraph to advertise his return on their front page, did he obey the rule which states that new jobs cannot be announced without ACOBA being consulted first. Johnson only got around to making that consultation retrospectively – which ministers are told is not permitted – on 26 July, more than a fortnight after he quit.

Johnson’s limp defence is that he did not receive a letter reminding him of the rules until after he had signed his Telegraph contract. Conveniently, this allowed him to return to his soapbox at the moment of maximum political danger for Theresa May, not to mention the Brexit proposal that led to his resignation. Unsurprisingly, ACOBA has ruled that he breached the ministerial code by doing so.

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Why does this matter? These rules are in place to guard against ministers effectively selling off sensitive information to the private sector once they leave office, and to prevent ministers making decisions in the hope of securing big-money employment. That should be some delay before ministers step into the revolving door between government and business, and some recourse to stop them from doing so, is an important democratic check.

It would be, that is, if ACOBA had the means to do anything when a minister like Johnson chooses to flagrantly disregard its rules for personal gain. In this case, it doesn’t, and indeed hasn’t. He has kept his job, and dutifully offered not to use “privileged information” in his role. He would even be willing to ask to have his contract amended to that effect. How selfless! If that’s the only cost of ignoring ACOBA, then why would any minister adhere to its rules?

It’s no wonder that it has been repeatedly condemned as toothless. In the year up to March 2017 a total of 52 former ministers were advised on 104 appointments and precisely none of them were rejected.  Any watchdog that allows George Osborne to take six jobs within a year of leaving the Treasury and Johnson to ignore it completely isn’t worthy of the name. Out of office as well as inside it, Johnson has been allowed to act with impunity. If the system isn’t reformed, others will follow.