Esther McVey’s sorry excuse for an apology shows up the flimsiness of our ministerial code

Under Theresa May the UK’s watchdogs are ineffectual against ministers without honour

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If Esther McVey was trying to look sorry when she took to the despatch box after Prime Minister’s Questions today, she has no future in acting.

In a series of remarks given recently to the House of Commons, McVey – who as work and pensions secretary is now responsible for the rollout of Universal Credit – told parliament that the National Audit Office had said she should accelerate deployment of the welfare changes.

In reality, the NAO’s scathing report on the government’s long-delayed flagship policy said nothing of the sort – and on Wednesday morning a letter from the UK’s auditor-general made McVey’s untruths clear. 

“I’m afraid your statement on 2 July that the NAO was concerned universal credit is currently “rolling out too slowly” and needs to “continue at a faster rate” is also not correct,” wrote auditor general Amyas Morse. “While we recognise regrettable early delays to universal credit, my recommendation made clearly on page 11 of the report is that the department must now ensure it is ready before it starts to transfer people over from previous benefits.”

The letter also said NAO had cleared its report with senior officials in the DWP – including its permanent secretary  – and they had not contested its statements.

The ministerial code forbids ministers from misleading the House and makes it clear this can be a resigning matter. Indeed, just last month Amber Rudd resigned after “inadvertently” – there’s a lot of “inadvertently” going around – misleading the Home Affairs Committee over the deportation of Windrush migrants.

Given that resignation, you might have thought McVey would show more signs of concern about her predicament. She did not. In a short statement, she explained how she had managed to tell parliament the NAO had told her to speed up when they had said the opposite in clear terms.

“I mistakenly said that the National Audit Office had asked for the rollout of Universal Credit to continue at a faster rate and to be speeded up. In fact, the NAO did not say that Mr Speaker and I want to apologise to you and the house for inadvertently misleading you,” she explained. “What I meant to say is that the NAO had said there was no practical alternative to continuing with Univeral Credit,” she said. “We adopt a test and learn approach to the rollout of Universal Credit which the NAO says mainly follows good practice and therefore the point I was trying to make was that the calls from the party opposite to pause it seem to fly in the face of those particular conclusions.”

In apologising for her “inadvertent” statement she in fact double downed on it, giving a different justification.

It gets better (worse) from there: the NAO also criticised McVey for claiming that its report had not used up-to-date information, despite its officials signing off on the report with no complaints just a week before. Rather than apologise for that comment in any sense, McVey simply repeated it.

This is not the address of a person feeling chastised in the slightest: even as a grudging apology from a schoolchild dragged in front of class by teacher, this would not pass muster.

The NAO is an official watchdog designed to hold the government and ministers to account for how they spend billions of pounds of our money on decisions that can prove pivotal to millions of people’s lives. It’s hardly the most savage of watchdogs – it shows advance copy of its reports to departments and lets officials sign them off to agree with them. And still ministers feel free to distort their independent findings in front of parliament – where they cannot reply – even when supposedly making public apologies.

McVey’s disdain for the public authorities designed to hold her to account is shared with another of her pro-Brexit Cabinet colleagues, Boris Johnson. During the EU referendum campaign, the UK’s Statistics Authority – which is mandated to prevent misuse of official statistics by ministers and others – publicly criticised the Leave campaign for its £350-million-a-week figure. It was a hugely rare intervention during an election campaign.

Johnson went on not only to repeat the figure, but exaggerate it, all while serving as a cabinet minister, provoking a rebuke. Johnson then publicly rejected the critiicism before launching a riposte at the independent authority. Needless to say, Johnson emerged entirely unscathed from this, unreprimanded, and continues to serve as Foreign Secretary.

The UK’s political watchdogs run on an honour system – they imagine that a prime minister’s actions, or ministers’ own sense of decency, will mean that their position becomes untenable if they invalidate the rules. This system is a joke, as eviodenced by McVey and Johnson’s total indifference to the NAO and UKSA. They are betting that a weak prime minister consumed by Brexit will be unwilling to rock the boat for something as petty as upholding the UK’s political checks, balances, and basic norms. On the avaialble evidence it is a safe bet.

What was different with Amber Rudd? Put simply, it was that the pressure on Rudd was sustained: the Labour frontbench tried (with mixed results) to keep pressure on her, but so too did backbench committees, and the front pages of media outlets usually friendly to the Tories. Only when the political atmosphere is made absolutely untenable can May be persuaded to cast a minister adrift.

In the long term, the UK needs to ditch its honour-based ineffectual ministerial code and its surrounding committees in favour of genuine accountability. In the short term, ministers will only be held accountable through clever, coordinated and sustained pressure when they do wrong.

In practice, between constant Brexit rows, an odd reluctance for Corbyn to push on McVey at PMQs, and the easy distraction of a World Cup, things look good for McVey and other cabinet ministers who feel like ignoring the rules. That’s terrible news for the rest of us.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk