The latest instalment in the Downing Street flat saga reveals a series of failures, by ministers, advisers and officials, to uphold standards in government. Root and branch reform is needed, says Tim Durrant
The publication of letters between the prime minister and Lord Geidt reveal failings on the parts of the independent adviser, civil servants, and the prime minister himself over the investigation into refurbishment of the Johnsons’ Downing Street flat. They also show just how much work is needed to rebuild trust in the systems designed to protect and uphold standards in government. And with an investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner possibly following last year’s Electoral Commission probe, this story is not finished yet.
Lord Geidt criticises the Cabinet Office for not declaring the prime minister’s message exchange with Lord Brownlow – the Conservative donor who helped fund the refurbishment – about the flat earlier. He seems to have been willing to accept Johnson’s word too easily – given how often the prime minister has been investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Geidt should have tested every assertion.
But the independent adviser now has the opportunity to increase his powers. Geidt’s anger at not being provided with all the relevant information has prompted the prime minister to promise “access to all information you consider necessary and prompt, full answers” in future investigations, perhaps underpinned by a “legal instrument”. Geidt should push for the greatest range of powers, including the ability to start his own investigations, to publish his findings, and for the ministerial code to be given a legislative underpinning. This would help ensure that future investigations are able to access all the facts.
Lord Geidt’s letter says Cabinet Office officials decided not to inform him about the exchange between the prime minister and Lord Brownlow. That was a poor decision – as Lord Geidt says, it suggests his role is not given appropriate respect.
But there were other failings by civil servants. The prime minister is a busy man – of course he is not going to be able to go back through all his old messages and contacts. His private office staff and political advisers should have been more thorough in searching for information when Lord Geidt was carrying out his first investigation – given the furore created when it emerged the prime minister’s old number was available online, you might expect someone in Number 10 would have remembered it.
Officials have a difficult balancing act when helping to uphold ministerial standards – they have to work to serve the government of the day but also have a duty to remain impartial and protect the system of government. But those working in the Cabinet Office on ethics issues face a difficult task of investigating their political bosses. The prime minister promised Lord Geidt a larger team of officials, which is welcome. That team needs to include senior staff who understand how the system works and what may need to be looked at in future investigations, as well as being prepared to stand up to ministers and their political advisers, if necessary, to ensure that standards are protected across government as a whole.
The prime minister argued that, having changed his phone, he had forgotten about the exchange of messages with Lord Brownlow. He can hardly be surprised that his excuse has been met with derision – and will do little to reassure the public that he is willing to be transparent when ethical questions arise. Johnson needs to accept that as the leader of the government, his actions will be under scrutiny and he has a responsibility to engage in good faith with that scrutiny.
As prime minister Johnson sets the tone on public standards in Number 10 and across government. Lord Geidt complains that there was not enough respect for his role among Number 10 staff – but they take their lead from the top. There is an obvious contrast between Geidt’s repeated references to the status and importance of the office of the independent adviser and the reality of its support and powers – if Johnson truly believes that this situation must not be allowed to happen again, he needs to back it up with meaningful reform.
2021 ended with the prime minister facing a series of ethical and standards scandals, and he is at risk of a repeat in 2022 unless he champions real reform to the system. That means agreeing to more independence for Lord Geidt and demanding a change in how those at the top of government view the standards expected of them. Both Johnson’s and Geidt’s letters talked about plans to reform the powers and role of the independent adviser, as well as potentially the ministerial code itself. A serious discussion, and real reform, should follow.
The next test for ethical standards in government is Sue Gray’s investigations into the various Christmas parties in 2020. Of course, the strength and credibility of a standards system is not measured by whether it finds people guilty or not, and there could be perfectly good inquiries that clear ministers and officials. But this system has lost all credibility and needs strengthening. If not, any report that clears ministers or officials will look like a stitch-up. Johnson and Geidt have said they want to rebuild trust in the system – they must now turn words into meaningful action.