What is the ministerial code and has Boris Johnson ‘made a mockery’ of it?

Against a backdrop of scandal at the heart of Downing Street, Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser quit this week, accusing the prime minister of “making a mockery” of the ministerial code in an “excoriating” letter announcing his resignation, The Telegraph reported.

Lord Geidt sent the letter on Wednesday, a day after telling MPs it was “reasonable” to believe the prime minister breached the ministerial code by breaking Covid-19 lockdown laws. 

The peer also accused Johnson of failing to account sufficiently for why he did not think he had broken the ministerial code, after he was accused of deliberately misleading Parliament over Partygate. 

What is the ministerial code?

The ministerial code is the set of rules and principles which outline the standards of conduct for government ministers. There are separate codes for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The codes all include the “overarching duty” of ministers to comply with the law and to abide by the Seven Principles of Public Life, Gov.uk says.

Also known as the Nolan Principles after the committee’s first chairman, Lord Nolan, the seven principles are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Who does it apply to?

Ministerial codes apply to all government ministers, and parts of the code also apply to those who work alongside them, including special advisers, and even unpaid advisers in the case of the Welsh code.

What does it cover?

All of the codes cover the functioning of government and the impartiality of the civil service, as well as ministers’ accountability to parliament, how government resources may be used, regulations on propriety and ethics, and the separation between private and public interests.

The codes also set out how each government should function, including the role of “collective responsibility, or collegiality, and how decisions are made”, the Institute for Government explains.

Has Johnson made a ‘mockery’ of the code?

In his resignation letter – published by the government yesterday – Geidt said that in the wake of a protracted dispute with the PM, he was finally forced to quit when he was asked to give a view on the government’s “intention to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the ministerial code”.

“This request has placed me in an impossible and odious position,” Geidt wrote to the prime minister. “My informal response on Monday was that you and any other minister should justify openly your position vis-a-vis the code in such circumstances.

“However, the idea that a prime minister might to any degree be in the business of deliberately breaching his own code is an affront.

“A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end.

“This would make a mockery not only of respect for the code but licence [sic] the suspension of its provisions in governing the conduct of Her Majesty’s ministers. I can have no part in this.”

Prior to his resignation, Geidt’s failure to sanction Johnson for his role in the Partygate scandal prompted Labour MP John McDonnell to suggest to Lord Geidt that his role as the PM’s adviser was “little more than a tin of whitewash”.

In reply, Lord Geidt said: “How can I defeat the impression that you are suggesting of a cosy, insufficiently independent relationship? It is very hard.”

His resignation, and the terse letter that came with it, look like a step in the direction of achieving that ambition, some commentators suggested.

And while Geidt insisted that his decision to quit was triggered by Johnson seeking to break the ministerial code with a plan to extend steel tariffs, in defiance of World Trade Organization rules, an official who worked with him noted: “It may be a convenient hill to die on, or the straw that broke the camel’s back, or perhaps both are true.”

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