Boris Johnson has changed the ministerial code so that ministers do not lose their jobs over “minor” breaches – instead, they just have to apologise or temporarily lose their pay.
Here’s what that means and just why it matters.
What is the ministerial code?
This is the rules and principles which lay out the standards of conduct expected from every government minister.
There are different codes for the government in Westminster, and in each of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
All four of them set out the “overarching duty” of ministers to follow the law and the ethical standards called the Seven Principles of Public Life – these include openness, integrity, honesty and accountability.
The ministerial code also sets out how collective responsibility – the idea all ministers are responsible for government as a whole – works, although the centralised UK one is particularly flexible.
Prior to the new policy statement No.10 released on Friday, the code said ministers “will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister” if they “knowingly mislead parliament”.
No other sanctions for breaching the code are laid out.
What’s the main change?
Now, ministers who are found to have breached the code in a “minor” way will no longer be automatically expected to resign or face the sack.
The government’s policy statement said it would be “disproportionate” for this to happen for “any breach, however minor”.
Instead the prime minister could order “some form of public apology, remedial action or remove of ministerial salary for a period” as punishment instead.
The statement explains: “Reflecting the prime minister’s accountability for the conduct of the executive, it is important that a role is retained for the prime minister is decisions about investigations.”
One of the reasons behind the change is allegedly to avoid “incentives for trivial or vexatious complaints, which may be made for partisan reasons”.
It comes after complaints from Labour and the Lib Dems about ministers’ behaviour.
Who investigates potential breaches?
Lord Christopher Geidt, a former aide to the Queen, has been the independent adviser investigating potential breaches ever since Johnson appointed him April 2021.
However, it is still down to the prime minister to decide if an investigation should even take place, and how – Johnson has rejected the idea that the adviser could be able to launch an investigation without his say-so in these new changes.
Johnson will also still have the power to block an inquiry, although an adviser has the power to make this situation public.
Geidt also does not have to publish his findings, but can “require” that the government publishes them “in a timely manner”.
It’s worth noting that there is no explicit process laid out in the code explaining how to make sure officials follow it.
What else has changed?
Johnson has also rewritten the foreword to the code. He removed any wording related to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability.
His 2019 foreword, said: “The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.”
Now, it reads: “Thirty years after it was first published, the ministerial code continues to fulfil 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.”
Why does any of this matter?
This is very unusual as codes are usually only updated at the start of each administration.
The timing, too, is alarming – the prime minister himself is currently facing an investigation to see if he “knowingly” broke the code by misleading parliament through the partygate saga.
The ministerial code holds the government to account and maintains standards in public office. It has been in place, in some form, since World War 2.
As Labour MP and chair of the privileges committee, Chris Bryant tweeted: “The new ministerial code is a disgrace. It means that the tiny semblance of accountability disappears.
“If you break the rules just rewrite the rule book is the motto of this despicable government.”
What does this mean for Johnson?
Johnson is facing an investigation by the Commons Privileges Committee to see if he misled the Commons, when he repeatedly claimed that no rules had been broken – to the best of his knowledge – in Downing Street during lockdown.
Now, if the prime minister is found to have breached the code, then the rule change means there would be less pressure for him to resign.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said that the change made it clear Johnson was “downgrading standards and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes”.
The Lib Dem’s chief whip, Wendy Chamberlain, also said it was an “appalling attempt” to “rig the rules to get himself off the hook”.
Chamberlain added: “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.”
Since the Sue Gray probe into partygate was published this week, only a handful of Tory MPs have called for Johnson to step down.