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To Reshuffle Or Not To Reshuffle: Is Johnson Doing Enough To Condemn His Ministers When They Break The Ministerial Code?

Hannah Pegram

Following yet another reshuffle of the Cabinet, Hannah explores the ineffectiveness of the ministerial code and questions Johnson’s tactics regarding the handling of his loyal ministers who have created a narrative of serial rule-breaking with little repercussions.

I wonder how many people have read the Ministerial Code – the thirty-six-page document signed by Boris Johnson highlighting the actions that will ‘not be tolerated by the government’ and the repercussions he and the Government will take if a Minister breaks such rules. Clearly, the Tory Cabinet skipped the Ministerial Code on their 2020 Lockdown Reading List. As Johnson swaps accountability for reshuffling, I ask the question: is the Ministerial Code enough?

It appears that each cabinet minister wants to have a whack at the metaphorical ministerial code piñata

The preface of the Ministerial Code details the importance of winning the trust of the British public, and in the eyes of Johnson – whose name is signed at the bottom of the page – this begins with upholding Ministerial integrity. A few unacceptable behaviours are listed within the first page; these are as follows: ‘there must be no bullying, and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility [cont.], no misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.’ Other actions listed further within the code include no lobbying, no accepting gifts or bribes and the importance of always upholding one’s duties.

Over the last year, it appears that each cabinet minister wants to have a whack at the metaphorical ministerial code piñata, pushing the rules time and time again, with little to no consequence.

Rishi Sunak has been accused of breaking the code when texts between him and former PM David Cameron were leaked showing potential lobbying, with Sunak giving business advice to Cameron amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.

Michael Gove awarded a £560,000 contract to communications company Public First, ran by friend and former special advisor, James Frayne; deemed by the High Court as ‘apparently bias and was unlawful’. In June, his department was also condemned by the Information Rights Tribunal for ‘blacklisting’ claims, running a secretive ‘clearing house’ unit withholding Freedom of Information requests from journalists. The IRT found this a ‘profound lack of transparency’.

Priti Patel has seen numerous allegations of breaking the Ministerial Code. In November 2017, Patel resigned from May’s Government after having fourteen unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businesspeople and lobbyists – meetings in which May was left in the dark. In her resignation letter, she stated that her actions ‘fell below the high standards expected of a secretary of state’.

In 2017 Patel was also accused of bullying staff members of her private office, and again in 2020, she was accused of bullying and harassing senior civil servants. Similarly, in September 2021, Labour accused Patel of breaking the ministerial code by setting up a private meeting between a Tory donor and British Airways. Both the Home Secretary and the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng attended with no civil servants.

The ministerial code establishes that meetings of this nature should have civil servants in attendance. Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner told the Sunday Mirror: ‘The home secretary is a serial offender with no regard for the ministerial code. It’s time the prime minister took away her get-out-of-jail-free card.’

Raab lounged by the pool as Kabul fell

Dominic Raab’s Holiday in the Sun during the Afghanistan crisis demonstrated his negligence to the position of foreign secretary. Raab lounged by the pool as Kabul fell, declining phone calls and emails with interpreters attempting to flee the country. Though Labour called for his removal, Johnson sat, silent.

This was until last Friday when it was announced that Johnson had reshuffled the Cabinet. As Dominic Raab left Downing Street, he came out with a beaming smile, ‘demoted’ from Foreign Secretary to Justice Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister.

Perhaps Johnson would rather keep his allies in Parliament than act in accordance with the rules he signs

The ‘demotion’ is not a ‘demotion’ at all; it is a slight slap on the wrist accompanied by the appeasement of giving Raab the role of Deputy Prime Minister, which though a largely ceremonial title keeps him on the side of Johnson. Perhaps Johnson would rather keep his allies in Parliament than act in accordance with the rules he signs.

We have historically learnt that Boris Johnson does not fire ministers. Gone are the days when a PM would fire ministers who were underperforming and would replace them with someone ‘deserving’. Of course, political alignment and allyship have always mattered in politics, but it appears that Johnson bases many of his appointment decisions on political calculation.

Within this reshuffle, we saw no ‘punishment’ for Sunak, Patel and Gove, who have dealt with allegations of breaking the Ministerial Code. Instead, they maintain their seats on the front bench, holding powerful Government positions. Why? Because they suit Johnson’s political aspirations for Great Britain and the Tory party. 

Johnson seems to ‘forget’ that there is a code that ministers must follow. The problem is that there is no ability for independent enforcement. After the bullying allegations against Priti Patel emerged, Alex Allan – the PM’s independent adviser on ministerial standards – resigned in protest at Johnson’s refusal to sack the home secretary.

Allan’s job involved overseeing and signing off the twice-yearly report on ministerial conduct. After leaving the role, his post was left vacant for five months, with little to no advertisement. In 2021 Lord Geit took the position. However, this role has little political power to punish a minister; the individual can advise but not act, inhibiting unbiased accountability.

So, the question arises, does the Ministerial Code do enough to punish those who break it? The Institute for Governmentreleased a report in July 2021 obliterating the existing Ministerial Code regarding t’s lack of detail and inability to be enforced in relation to Johnson’s ministers continuously breaching the code without proper investigation. It advises that the code needs re-evaluation and the addition of new rules.

Instead of accountability, they reshuffle

The Ministerial Code is not working; Johnson’s Government continues to break the rules of conduct, but instead of accountability, they reshuffle. A cabinet reshuffle is not effective accountability, especially when you keep Ministers who continually defy the code on the front bench. What confidence does this install in the British public? Reshuffling is not a form of punishment; it allows politicians to keep their jobs even though they have broken the rules – would the same apply to you or me in our jobs?

Hannah Pegram

Featured image courtesy of Jordhan Madec via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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