Boris Johnson’s ethics chief has suggested the prime minister’s partygate fine may have breached the ministerial code, in a sign the scandal the prime minister hoped to draw a line under last week has not gone away.
Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on the ministerial code, said a “legitimate question” had arisen as to whether the fixed penalty notice issued by the Metropolitan Police might have constituted a breach of the “overarching duty within the ministerial code of complying with the law”.
Here’s the row explained:
What is the ministerial code?
The code 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.
Why is Johnson in trouble?
The prime minister was issued with a fixed penalty notice over a birthday party thrown in his honour in the Cabinet Room in June 2020 at a time when indoor socialising was banned. The Met’s Operation Hillman inquiry into events in No 10 and Whitehall has now concluded, with the PM receiving no further fines.
Last week, Sue Gray’s partygate report painted a debauched picture of booze-fuelled lockdown partying into the early hours, cleaners having to scrub red wine off the walls, a fight between staff, and a karaoke machine at the ready. But the PM has refused to step down since its publication, despite pressure from his own MPs.
Johnson said he takes “full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch”, but that he had no idea some gatherings went on until the early hours and that he was “surprised and disappointed” by some of the revelations.
But he’s not out the woods. The Commons privileges committee’s investigation into whether the prime minister misled parliament looms. On multiple occasions, in parliament, Johnson denied knowledge of any rule breaking in No.10.
The ministerial code states that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”. The key word there is “knowingly” – Johnson’s defence has been that he did not think anything he did broke the laws that he had imposed on the country.
What happened last week?
Johnson was, two days after the Gray report, accused of watering down the code after the government said it was being updated.
The update makes clear that ministers will not necessarily have to resign for more minor violations.
Instead the prime minister will have the option of imposing a lesser sanction such as “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period”.
Johnson has also rewritten the foreword to the code. He removed any wording related to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability.
Crucially, he also blocked his independent ethics chief – Lord Geidt as it currently stands – from gaining the power to launch their own investigations.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who chairs the privileges committee, said: “If you break the rules just rewrite the rule book is the motto of this despicable government.”
What’s Lord Geidt said?
On Tuesday, Lord Geidt said there is a “legitimate question” about whether Johnson broke the ethics rules when he was fined by the police.
In his preface to his latest annual report, he said he had repeatedly told the prime minister to “take responsibility for his own conduct” by publicly explaining why he thought incurring a fixed penalty notice would not be in breach of the code of conduct for ministers. “That advice has not been heeded,” Lord Geidt added.
Lord Geidt warned it may be “especially difficult to inspire that trust” in the rules for ministers “if any prime minister, whose code it is, declines to refer to it”. The key section of his comments state:
“In the case of the fixed penalty notice recently issued to and paid by the prime minister, a legitimate question has arisen as to whether those facts alone might have constituted a breach of the overarching duty within the ministerial code of complying with the law.
“It may be that the prime minister considers that no such breach of his ministerial code has occurred.
“In that case, I believe a prime minister should respond accordingly, setting out his case in public. This matters to the integrity of the independent adviser who, otherwise, might until recently have had to seek a prime minister’s consent to make inquiries into a prime minister’s conduct.”
In one section of the report, written in classic civil servants’ language, Lord Geidt essays what he calls the code becoming “a place of ridicule” – where the independent advisor can’t criticise a prime minister unless the prime minister criticises themselves first. Lord Geidt also suggests he might quit if not permitted to launch his own probes.
He writes: “I have attempted to avoid the independent adviser offering advice to a prime minister about a prime minister’s obligations under his own ministerial code.
“If a prime minister’s judgment is that there is nothing to investigate or no case to answer, he would be bound to reject any such advice, thus forcing the resignation of the independent adviser.
“Such a circular process could only risk placing the ministerial code in a place of ridicule.”
How did Johnson respond?
Johnson said in a letter to Lord Geidt that the fine “did not breach” the ministerial code as there was “no intent to break the law”.
He said his reasoning for this view included that there have been “past precedents of ministers who have unwittingly breached regulations where there was no intent to break the law”.
The prime minister said he had complied with the code’s requirements by correcting statements to parliament denying that there had been parties at his residence. He said they had been delivered “in good faith” but turned out to be untrue.
Johnson said that Lord Geidt had not directly raised with him the need for a statement on his compliance with the code and blamed a “failure of communications” between their two offices.