The Nolan Principles: What are they, and could Boris Johnson be in breach of them?

Claims of an affair with Jennifer Arcuri have raised questions over whether the Prime Minister has broken the code for conduct in public life.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

When fresh claims about a four-year affair between Boris Johnson and American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri surfaced this week, questions as to whether Johnson, who was the mayor of London at the time of the alleged relationship, misused his position to benefit Arcuri and the companies she worked for were put to Downing Street's press secretary, Allegra Stratton.

“This has been looked at in-depth and there was found to be no case to answer,” Stratton told reporters, referring to a 2019 investigation from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which said that while Johnson should have declared a potential conflict of interest with his association with Arcuri, there was no basis for a criminal trial.

Eyebrows were first raised about Johnson's conduct relating to Arcuri in 2019, when allegations of a personal affair between the two surfaced. It was noted that during the time of the alleged affair Johnson had spoken at events organised by Arcuri and she had attended three taxpayer-funded trade missions, while companies she worked for received taxpayer money in sponsorships and grants.

The latest claims made by Arcuri, who detailed the alleged affair in the Sunday Mirror, have reinvigorated a probe by the Greater London Authority (GLA) – which oversees the London Mayor’s Office – to determine whether Johnson breached the standards of his former role.

Tabloid gossip aside, the charges centre around whether the alleged relationship, any potential misuse of power and Johnson's failure to report a conflict of interest, could be in violation of the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which outline the moral and ethical principles public servants must abide by.

“The Prime Minister does follow the Nolan principles when conducting himself in public life," Stratton told reporters on Monday, insisting that Johnson had behaved with “honesty and integrity".

But what does this mean exactly? And what does this newest revelation mean for Johnson?

The Nolan Principles are a list of seven ethical standards that those who hold public office – everyone from the Prime Minister through to teachers – are expected to follow while providing public service.

[see also: Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government]

Their origins trace back to the Nineties, when former prime minister John Major set up a committee to establish rules and standards of public life, following scandals and concerns surrounding the actions of some politicians. The goal was to create standards which would “ensure the highest standards of propriety".

Since 1995, the seven principles of public life – named after the committee's first chair, Michael Nolan – have become the code of conduct for public officials. They are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is no coincidence that Stratton referred to two of them explicitly in her answer to the media.

These ideals are quite self-explanatory in meaning (as evidenced by the short descriptions of each principle in the ministerial code), and indicate the type of conduct you would expect in a liberal democracy: public officials who are honest, behave with integrity and are accountable for their actions.

However, since the inception of the standards, applying these noble principles has often proven easier said than done.

In a blog post marking the 25th anniversary of the standards in 2019, the committee's current chair, Jonathan Evans, noted that recent committee reports “have frequently identified weaknesses in scrutiny and insufficient education in organisations about the expected standards of behaviour”.

“Good conduct is just as much about organisational culture as it is about formal rules and structures,” he said. “Building and maintaining a strong ethical culture requires constant vigilance.”

Even before the Covid crisis and its string of government scandals – related to lobbying, procurement, and alleged cronyism – questions were being raised about Johnson's adherence to the code, with some wondering whether we now live in a post-Nolan era. With Arcuri in the headlines again now, we can expect a revival of such concerns.

Boris Johnson has already batted away the IOPC investigation. But the current GLA probe may prove awkward for the Prime Minister, who has never publicly denied he had an affair with Arcuri. 

Should Johnson wish to stay on the right side of the Nolan principles – and, by extension, the ministerial code – he might consider it safest to let his press secretary take the brunt of this interrogation from the media, and avoid the question himself altogether.

[see also: Boris Johnson’s attack on people for working from home shows his own irresponsibility]

Harry Clarke-Ezzidio is a graduate trainee at the New Statesman.

Free trial CSS