Broken confidentiality means no one will say anything of value in UK government meetings

Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood says ministerial code needs updating

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEP 02: Tobias Ellwood MP arrives in Downing Street on 02 September, 2019 in London, England as Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts a garden party for all Tory MPs. A cross-party alliance of MPs is expected to attempt to legislate against no-deal Brexit as MPs return to the House of Commons tomorrow before Parliament is prorogued next week until the Queens Speech on 14 October, just over two weeks before the UK is set to leave the EU. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Fears that UK ministers' private conversations might be publicly reported could cripple government decisions, a leading Conservative MP told The National.

With the continued furore engulfing Downing Street over allegations that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said "let the bodies pile high" during a conversation with advisers about the pandemic, Tobias Ellwood condemned the damaging culture of breaching confidentiality.

He criticised Mr Johnson's former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who is accused – but strongly denies – leaking information, labelling him "an agitated ex-employee".

“It's a privileged position to work in government and people should be free to say what they’d really like to, knowing that it's not going to be reported,” the chairman of the Defence Committee said.

“Now everybody in a meeting is going to be so shy to say anything of value, which is a wider concern as to where politics is going today, that it is so sanitised that people are scared of saying anything for fear of it being repeated by a disgruntled employee.”

He said many in the Conservative Party were disillusioned by Mr Cummings's actions since leaving government in December.

There are also concerns that the controversies over the refurbishment of the prime minister's flat and the leaking of WhatsApp messages could prove a dangerous distraction as the UK tries to vaccinate its population before another wave of Covid-19 arrives.

“What's on most people's minds at the moment is how we can plot a way forward out of this pandemic, so distractions like this are dangerous,” said the former defence and foreign minister.

Mr Johnson’s Labour opponents believe that if the Conservatives fare badly in local elections on May 6 as a result of the current revelations, his position as prime minister could be under threat.

"The elections are going to be a real test and there are a lot of people who are hungry for his job," Sarah Champion, the Labour chairwoman of the International Development Committee told The National.

“Politicians can smell blood and I think there's a lot of it around at the moment from a lot of different directions, so I think he's in a very vulnerable position.”

Addressing who paid for the renovation of the private flat at Downing Street, Mr Ellwood said the matter needed clarification, and suggested that Britain should adopt the American system under which a trust is in place to pay for upgrades to the White House.

With an ongoing row over WhatsApp messages between Mr Johnson and the entrepreneur James Dyson, Mr Ellwood suggested that code of conduct guidelines for politicians should be updated for the modern age.

The prime minister’s messages were in response to Mr Dyson’s request for easing taxation rules for his overseas workers after an urgent request to build ventilators at the beginning of the pandemic.

“The ministerial code hasn't kept up with the use of mobile phones, but that's how it’s done all the time now to communicate,” Mr Ellwood said. “There was an emergency – Dyson is an entrepreneur and he offered to make ventilators and if you see what's happening in India now, then that benefited us. You have to be able to make these things work.”

However, critics say politicians must follow protocol so their decision-making is transparent.