Ideas on Europe

The legacy of Boris Johnson in governmental ethics - Rebecca Dobson

The legacy of Boris Johnson in governmental ethics - Rebecca Dobson

Our weekly "Ideas on Europe" editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, with Rebecca Dobson Philips, from the University of Sussex, in the UK.

Rebecca, you are a specialist of "governmental ethics", a very particular field of research. And I presume the mandate of Boris Johnson as Prime minister is a particularly interesting period in this respect.

Yes, it is! Boris Johnson led the UK during a time of turmoil, shaken by the COVID pandemic and emergency procedures. At the same time, Britain was embroiled in the ongoing struggle for control over the country’s direction as it embarked on its exit from the European Union.

It’s important to note this context because it makes it all the more difficult to make clear-cut judgements about many of the so-called scandals of Johnson’s premiership. It also makes it difficult to assess the long-term impact of this time. For example, was Johnson’s premiership merely a blip or does it signal a longer-term decline in standards in public life?

But didn’t Johnson, and members of his Cabinet, break the conventions and rules associated with ethics and expected standards in public life ?

There is little doubt about that. One of the peculiarities of the UK ethics system is that much of it relies upon convention rather than rule; and the accountability mechanisms in place for breaching these have been particularly challenged.

In terms of Ministerial Conduct, sovereignty resides in Parliament, but the control of parliament is in the hands of the Executive. This means that mechanisms for holding Ministers to account ultimately rely on the cooperation of the Prime Minister.

What exactly are these rules and conventions ?

They are set within an overall framework called the "Seven Principles of Public Life". These include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The view of many political observers is that these principles have been repeatedly flouted. Ministers are also governed by the Ministerial code, which refers to these principles and a set of rules that Ministers are expected to abide by. The Prime Minister is the ultimate authority over the Code, which means that he or she decides on any penalties for breaching the Code. The PM is assisted in this decision-making by an Independent Ethics Advisor, who is responsible for providing impartial advice and investigating any concerns.

In an unprecedented situation, Johnson lost two of his Ethics Advisors within two years for failing to follow their advice. Sir Alex Allen resigned in November 2020, when Johnson overruled his advice on whether or not Priti Patel, the then Home Secretary, had breached the Code over bullying allegations. And in June 2022, Lord Geidt resigned in relation to Johnson’s parties held at Downing Street while the entire country was in COVID lockdown.

Were there any further consequences ?

There was an investigation into the matter by senior civil servant Sue Grey, which while ostensibly independent, suffered from allegations of political meddling.

There was also a police investigation into the alleged parties, and both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak were issued with fixed penalty notices by the Metropolitan police for breaching lockdown rules.

Johnson became the first PM in history to have been found to have broken the law while in office.

But that’s not what finally brought down Johnson and his administration, is it ?

No, you’re right. Johnson’s administration was ultimately brought down politically by his handling of the Chris Pincher Affair, which involved an MP who was subject to sexual harassment claims, and led to mass resignations of Ministers from government. It was therefore political rather than bureaucratic accountability mechanisms that ultimately took their toll on his leadership.

In terms of ethics and standards in public life, Johnson’s long-term legacy is yet unknown. Much will depend on the willingness of his successors to reinvigorate the system of ethics and support the development of more effective accountability.

They have the tools necessary at their disposal including a Committee on Standards in Public Life with more than 25 years’ experience advising the Prime Minister on ethical and standards matters. A strong stance on these issues is yet to be forthcoming from the current Prime Minister Liz Truss, but failure to address the fraying of standards over the last few years risks further erosion of trust in and the integrity of the UK’s democratic system.

Many thanks, Rebecca, for sharing your insight on these complex issues that are always difficult to understand from the outside.

Interview conducted by Laurence Aubron