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Rishi Sunak needs to take action to show he is serious about integrity

The PM should act now to demonstrate his commitment to integrity, asserting his expectations of his ministers from a position of strength.

10 Downing Street

Gavin Williamson’s exit has temporarily diffused questions about the integrity of Rishi Sunak’s government, but Hannah White says that the PM has a narrow window of opportunity to settle such questions from a position of strength before the next scandal breaks

So far, the ethical questions that have been raised since Rishi Sunak took office have not been about the conduct of his government but the wisdom of two of his cabinet appointments – Suella Braverman and Gavin Williamson – in light of their past records. The willingness of Conservative MPs to brief against their new prime minister’s picks reveals both the extent of the bad blood that has built up in the parliamentary party over the past 12 years and the limitations on backbench support for Sunak.  

Williamson’s departure reflects Sunak’s recognition that he simply doesn’t have the time or political capital to spare to defend errant ministers, and Keir Starmer was quick to accuse the PM of being “weak” in his handling of the issue. Sunak’s next realisation should be that he could defuse future such accusations by taking steps to give real substance to his assertion that his government will demonstrate integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels.  

Sunak is dealing with the problems of his predecessors, and will also find himself dragged into the row over resignation honours lists. The damage done to standards may have been caused by previous inhabitants of No.10, but the blame for any scandal that breaks on his watch will be aimed squarely at Sunak. The PM should act now to demonstrate his commitment to integrity, asserting his expectations of his ministers from a position of strength and show that he is leading on the issue of standards rather than simply reacting. The alternative is that he finds himself forced into reforms in the wake of future problems.  

Sunak should appoint a standards adviser with real independence  

Like his predecessors – apart from Truss who didn’t get around to it – Sunak needs to issue his own version of the ministerial code. In doing so he should reflect clearly on the lessons from the Boris Johnson era and where the code needs strengthening or updating. Johnson’s latest edition, from May 2022, contained a foreword that read more like a party political broadcast than a statement on the importance of integrity – eliminating references to the principles of conduct in public life. Sunak would do well to restore these and include a convincing statement of the standards he expects of his ministers. 

If Sunak wants the ministerial code to be an effective tool then he needs to ensure he has the means to enforce it. Government sources have indicated he intends to appoint an adviser on ministerial interests – which would be a welcome shift from the tail-end of the Johnson premiership when, after two resignations, the post stood vacant. But if he really wants his assertion that he will lead a government of integrity to be convincing, then Sunak must also strengthen the adviser’s powers. No credible candidate for the role should accept it now without ensuring they have the power to launch investigations when they see fit, rather than with the PM’s approval, and to publish their findings on their own initiative. This change would send an important signal of a step change in No.10’s approach to ethics, and something the Institute has long called for.     

Sunak should resolve a series of unanswered questions about ethical standards 

But Sunak should go further. The UK’s system of ethics regulation has evolved over the past three decades as new problems have been identified and the context in which public servants are doing their jobs has changed. But a wide variety of ethical questions raised by Brexit, Covid and the Johnson years have yet to be resolved, despite the work undertaken by a variety of individuals and bodies to consider how this might be done.  

For example, while David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital during the pandemic did not break any rules, it prompted widespread discomfort. Yet the government has yet to respond to Nigel Boardman’s two reports into how lobbying regulation could be strengthened. Similarly, the government has not provided an opportunity for MPs to adopt the recommendations of the Commons Committee on Standards’ report in the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal. The committee’s recommendations did not go far enough in tackling the issue of MPs’ outside jobs, but would usefully strengthen the Commons’ standards system in other ways. Meanwhile the government has also neglected to respond to the wide-ranging report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life which made recommendations about how to strengthen the wider system in that area.

Two common themes of all these reports are independence and transparency – both areas in which recent governments have moved backwards, carelessly or deliberately, in recent years.  

Sunak now has the opportunity to distinguish himself from his predecessors and reverse the direction of travel. A strong first step would be to challenge what has become the increasingly farcical spectacle of prime ministers’ resignation honours leading to former PMs’ support staff being gifted lifelong roles as legislators. Establishing new conventions about this power of patronage – through a principled approach to the proposals put forward by his predecessors, and what he signals about what he plans to do on leaving office – would send a powerful message about the ethics of his government.  

Whether the PM chooses to underpin the credibility of his government by taking concrete action on integrity, or continues to prioritise political expediency over high standards of behaviour, will be the measure of how he really intends to govern.

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