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Boris Johnson sets the tone on ministerial standards

It is prime ministers who decide whether ministers’ behaviour meets the standard required to remain in their roles

Advisers advise, but it is prime ministers who decide whether ministers’ behaviour meets the standard required to remain in their roles, says Tim Durrant

Last year Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, resigned when the prime minister disagreed with his findings that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had broken the ministerial code by bullying her officials. The prime minister has still not appointed a new independent adviser, the longest gap between advisers since Tony Blair created the role. [1]

Sir Alex and his predecessor, Sir Philip Mawer, have this week given evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life about the role of the independent adviser and how it could be strengthened. They put forward many useful suggestions, but the discussion served as a reminder that it is up to the prime minister to ensure that his ministers meet expected standards.

The role of the independent adviser should be strengthened

Sir Alex and Sir Philip agreed that most ministers want to abide by the ministerial code, the set of rules governing their conduct. Ministers should therefore not be intimidated by the idea of expanding the role of the independent adviser.

Currently, the adviser is unable to investigate whether there has been a breach of the code unless the prime minister requests an investigation. Both former advisers argued that this should change to a system where the adviser can begin investigations on their own initiative. This is a good solution that would mean they are seen as more independent of the prime minister and would give their recommendations more weight. It would also help insulate the prime ministers from some of the politics of investigations, as he or she is currently open to criticism if allegations of poor standards are not investigated. If the adviser were able to start their own investigations, they could give clear explanations of when they will and will not look into allegations.

The government could learn from parliament

In this area, the government’s processes for monitoring standards fall behind those in parliament. All MPs are subject to a code of conduct, which is enforced by the Committee on Standards. A commissioner is appointed by House of Commons to advise MPs on the code and report to the committee on any breaches. The commissioner is able to investigate possible breaches of the code without being asked to do so. [2]

Parliament also takes a more flexible approach to sanctions for those members found to have broken the code. As the committee heard, these days there is often pressure that Ministers who break the ministerial code are expected to resign (even though the code itself does not say that this is necessary), regardless of the severity of the breach. This means a prime minister may be more reluctant to agree that a breach has occurred if they do not want to lose a key member of their team. The parliamentary code of conduct says that the Commons may impose sanctions on MPs where necessary, but it is up to the Commons to decide what those sanctions will be. If the ministerial code were clearer that a range of sanctions is possible, including for example sanctions used by parliament like public apologies, a temporary suspension, or perhaps a commitment to undertake certain training, there would not be such a high price for those found to have broken it.

The prime minister will always be the ultimate judge of standards

The political and constitutional importance of the prime minister deciding who is or is not in his cabinet means it will always be the prime minister’s decision on whether the code has actually been broken and if so, what sanctions should follow. As Sir Alex and Sir Philip explained, that is the right way to manage things – the prime minister must set out what standards he or she expects ministers to adhere to, and only the prime minister can judge whether ministers have fallen short.

But during his time as prime minister so far, Boris Johnson has shown a desire to push back against criticism of how his team behaves. And with an 80-seat majority, there are few political incentives for the prime minister to bow to external criticism. But while this bullish approach is keeping his ministers in place for the present, once informal conventions have been overridden they are hard to rebuild in the future. Disrespecting his own code makes it difficult for the Conservatives to criticise other ministers who are accused of breaking the code, as recent events in Scotland have shown. To show that he cares about high standards in public office, Johnson needs to appoint a new independent adviser on ministerial standards, give that person the power to act fully independently, and heed their advice.

  1.  Dyer H, ‘Boris Johnson fails to replace adviser on ministerial standards amid growing cronyism allegations’, Business Insider, 4 March 2021, retrieved 10 March 2021
  2. The Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament, available on


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