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Boris Johnson removes instruction to ministers to 'uphold the very highest standards of propriety' in new ministerial handbook

Business Insider US
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
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  • Boris Johnson issued a new foreword to an updated version of the Ministerial Code.
  • In August 2019, Johnson wrote that to "win back the trust of the British people," the highest standards must be upheld.
  • His latest foreword has no equivalent, merely saying the Code guides ministers "how they should act and arrange their affairs."
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has removed an instruction to ministers in his foreword to the Ministerial Code, the handbook of rules for how British ministers should behave, to "uphold the very highest standards of propriety."

The updated foreword came alongside a minimally changed edition of the Code, the first update since the first edition released under Johnson's premiership in August 2019.

In Johnson's first foreword, he stressed how ministers must "win back the trust of the British people."

"We must uphold the very highest standards of propriety — and this code sets out how we must do so. There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest," it 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."

Since August 2019, Johnson has had:

  • One independent advisor resign over a failure to take action against Home Secretary Priti Patel when she was found to have bullied a senior civil servant.
  • A string of leaks and subsequently announced leak inquiries.
  • MPs alleging the government of being "complacent" about COVID-19 loan fraud.
  • A number of allegations of conflicts of interest for senior members of his government, such as meetings between housing minister Robert Jenrick and the developer and Conservative donor Richard Desmond, on whose behalf Jenrick ruled in a planning decision. 

But in his most recent foreword, Johnson merely notes that "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."

Johnson's reference to "my Ministers" is unusual, as ministers are ministers of the Crown, appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. References to "my Ministers" are most frequently seen in the Queen's Speech, when the monarch reads from a government-written speech to outline the legislative plan for the coming year in Parliament.

The minor changes to the Code relate to new terms of reference for Johnson's independent advisor on ministers' standards, Lord Geidt.

Despite widespread calls, including by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, for Geidt to be given the ability to open his own investigations into breaches of the code, Johnson has not provided Geidt with this new power.

Instead, the new terms of reference state that the prime minister will "normally give his consent" to a request to open an investigation, but it remains the case that the request can be denied if the prime minister sees fit.

Johnson has also watered down the punishment for breaches of the Ministerial Code.

Previously, a breach of the code was meant to be followed by resignation or dismissal from post, but options such as public apologies and loss of ministerial salary are now stated in the code.

Tim Durrant, associate director at the Institute for Government think tank, tweeted that the new terms of reference for Lord Geidt were "another missed opportunity to show they are serious about tackling failures of standards in public life."

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