UK's Boris Johnson accused of weakening ethics rules for resignations

Before the update, ministers were expected to resign if found in breach of Ministerial Code

Protesters stand at the gates to Downing Street in London. AP
Powered by automated translation

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of weakening the ethics rule book on when ministers should resign, right as he is being investigated over the partygate controversy.

It was “disproportionate” to expect ministers to resign or be sacked for “minor” breaches of provisions in the Ministerial Code, a government policy statement said.

Instead, the code has been updated, giving the prime minister the option of ordering a lesser sanction such as “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period”.

Before the update on Friday, ministers were expected to resign if they were found to have been in breach of the code.

At the same time, Mr Johnson has received support for allowing his independent adviser on the code, Lord Geidt, to mount investigations into possible breaches on his own initiative.

Under his revised terms of reference, there will be an “enhanced process” to enable Lord Geidt to initiate inquiries, but he will still require the prime minister's consent before going ahead.

Downing Street after Boris Johnson's latest apology

Downing Street after Boris Johnson's latest apology

“Reflecting the prime minister's accountability for the conduct of the executive, it is important that a role is retained for the prime minister in decisions about investigations,” the statement said.

The changes come days after the final report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray into lockdown parties at Downing Street led to renewed calls for Mr Johnson to resign.

The prime minister is now facing an inquiry by the Commons Privileges Committee into whether he misled Parliament as to what happened.

The opposition Labour party said Mr Johnson had removed all references to “integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest” from his own foreword to the code to save himself.

“This prime minister is downgrading and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes,” deputy leader Angela Rayner said.

“In a week when Boris Johnson's lies to Parliament about industrial rule-breaking at the heart of government were finally exposed, he should be tendering his resignation but is instead watering down the rules to save his own skin.

“Once again, Boris Johnson has demonstrated he is not serious about his pledge to address the scandal and sleaze engulfing his government or the frequent and flagrant breaches of standards and rule-breaking that have taken place on his watch.”

Mr Johnson survived the immediate fallout of the Sue Gray report but since then, there has been a drip-feed of no confidence letters being submitted over the his leadership.

Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Commons Justice Committee, added his name to that list on Friday, declaring that he did not think the prime minister's explanations for attending events in No 10 were “credible”.

“I have listened carefully to the explanations the prime minister has given, in Parliament and elsewhere, and, regrettably, do not find his assertions to be credible,” he said.

“That is why, with a heavy heart, I submitted a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady on Wednesday afternoon.”

MP Paul Holmes has resigned as a ministerial aide after saying he was “shocked and angered” by the behaviour described in the Sue Gray report.

“As I have always made clear, I, like most of you, was shocked and angered by the revelations,” he said.

Alicia Kearns, a Conservative elected to the Commons in 2019 during Mr Johnson's landslide election victory, said the prime minister's “account of events to Parliament” about No 10 lockdown parties was “misleading”.

The prime minister, however, appeared confident that he has enough backing to survive, telling reporters: “I think I gave some pretty vintage and exhaustive answers on all that subject the other day in the House of Commons and then in a subsequent press conference.”

Updated: May 27, 2022, 7:06 PM