Boris Johnson is changing the rules to let ministers avoid resigning if they break the ministerial code, allowing them to apologise or temporarily lose their pay instead.
The prime minister, who is himself facing claims of breaching the code, published a policy statement on Friday saying it is “disproportionate to expect that any breach, however minor, should lead automatically to resignation or dismissal”.
A new version of the ministerial code has been published, suggesting that future ministers are likely to face making a “public apology, remedial action, or removal of ministerial salary for a period” if they retain the confidence of the prime minister.
One of the reasons for changing the rules is to “avoid incentives for trivial or vexatious complaints which may be made for partisan reasons”, it says after a slew of complaints about ministers’ conduct from Labor and the Liberal Democrats.
The change comes as Johnson faces his own investigation by the privileges committee into whether he misled parliament by claiming there were no parties in No 10 during lockdown and that the rules were followed at all times.
The ministerial code continues to say that it is a resignation matter if a minister “knowingly” misleads the House of Commons.
However, if Johnson is found to have breached other principles of public life, such as lacking openness and honesty, then the changes to the rules make it less likely that he would be automatically expected to resign.
Under changes to the guidance, Johnson also rejected the idea that his independent adviser should have the power to launch investigations into ministers or the prime minister without his permission.
The adviser, currently Christopher Geidt, a former aid to the Queen, will in future be able to instigate investigations but only with the consent of the prime minister, who will retain the power to block an inquiry. In such a case, the adviser would have the power to make this situation public.
Johnson has also rewritten the foreword to the code, removing all references to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability.
In his first foreword, published in 2019, he wrote: “There must be no bullying and no harassment; not leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honored at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.”
The 2022 foreword simply lists the government’s priorities, with only a brief mention of standards and behavior of ministers, saying: “Thirty years after it was first published, the ministerial code continues to fulfill its purpose, guiding my ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs. As the leader of Her Majesty’s government, my accountability is to parliament and, via the ballot box, to the British people.”
Responding to the changes, Angela Rayner, the Labor deputy leader, said: “He is downgrading standards and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes.”
Nick Timothy, a former adviser to Theresa May, said: “If any Tory MPs are laboring under the impression that the PM might listen, learn or change, amending the ministerial code so he’s not expected to quit when he breaks it ought to … clinch the argument.”
Wendy Chamberlain, the Lib Dem chief whip, said it was an “appalling attempt by Boris Johnson to rig the rules to get himself off the hook.”
“It seems the Conservatives have learned nothing from the Owen Paterson scandal,” she said, referring to the MP who breached the MPs’ code of conduct but whose suspension the government attempted to block.
“The prime minister shouldn’t be allowed to decide on his own punishment with zero accountability. This is making him judge and jury in his own case. If the privileges committee finds Boris Johnson lied to parliament, surely Conservative MPs will have no choice but to sack him.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism