Jake Berry has suggested that Rishi Sunak should temporarily suspend Nadim Zahawi while he is investigated for breaching the ministerial code. Hannah White argues a formal suspension mechanism could be useful but would have downsides
The purpose of having an independent adviser on ministerial interests is to allow the prime minister to investigate of possible breaches of the ministerial code. But that has not stopped journalists asking difficult questions and conducting their own – much wider – investigations into Nadim Zahawi’s affairs. This is making it very difficult for Zahawi to fulfil his public facing role as chair of the Conservative Party.
And this is one reason why former Conservative Party chair, Jake Berry, has suggested Zahawi should be temporarily suspended, and then reinstated if his name is cleared. As Berry argued on BBC Question Time on Thursday night, a suspension mechanism would have other benefits. It would remove any suspicion that a minister could influence the outcome of an investigation and thereby enhance public trust in government.
In practice it is already possible for the prime minister to temporarily remove a minister. Sunak could conduct a mini reshuffle – replacing Zahawi with another minister but making clear that he intended to reinstate him if appropriate once Laurie Magnus’s investigation had concluded. However, were Sunak to do this now, given the furore around Zahawi’s position, it would doubtless be seen as a pre-emptive sacking. This is what happened to Conor Burns who was accused of misconduct, removed by Liz Truss, subsequently cleared but not reinstated. However, establishing a mechanism could be useful for future cases.
A formal suspension mechanism for ministers could create greater clarity
Berry suggested the government should go beyond what is currently possible and find ‘a mechanism’ by which both ministers and MPs could be formally suspended while under investigation by the police, the independent adviser or any other inquiry process. The precedent for this would be the legal changes recently made to allow ministers to take maternity leave and then return to their former roles.
A formal mechanism set out in law or in the ministerial code would have some advantages over what is currently possible. It would clarify the status of a minister under investigation, and potentially allow for their salary to be back paid following the conclusion of an inquiry if they were cleared. It would ensure that the role of the minister could be properly fulfilled by an alternate minister while an investigation was underway – something that would be a more significant consideration for a cabinet role that is policy and delivery focused. It would encourage investigations to be completed as rapidly as possible. And it would also mirror the approach normally taken when other professionals, such as teachers or doctors, are under investigation.
A ministerial suspension mechanism might make prime ministers reluctant to allow investigations
However, creating such a mechanism would have downsides. Right now, admitting the need for such a suspension mechanism would look like Rishi Sunak saying that he expected more of his ministers to be investigated in future. There would certainly be concerns that the existence of such a formal suspension mechanism and the precedent of it being used might encourage vexatious complaints against ministers. It would provide an unwelcome disincentive to any prime minister allowing the independent adviser to undertake future investigations. And it could contribute to unnecessary ministerial churn, especially where ministers are subject to long or complex investigations.
The question of how to deal with politicians while they are under investigation for breaking ethical standards is a debate live in parliament too. Julian Knight MP has stood down from the chair of the DCMS committee and recused himself from parliament while under investigation by the police, and the Standards Committee is conducting an inquiry into so called ‘precautionary exclusion’ of MPs under investigation from the parliamentary estate.
Jake Berry’s suggestion should not just fuel debate about Nadhim Zahawi’s future, it should also – as it seems he intended – prompt a discussion about whether the processes which surround the investigation of alleged ethical breaches by politicians are right. This requires us to balance the rights of politicians themselves and those they represent, against those of staff, civil servants and constituents, raising issues of legal principle (although ministers are not subject to normal employment law), propriety and the effective functioning of government. This is not just about process. These are important questions of principle, which Rishi Sunak will need to answer once the investigation into Nadhim Zahawi is complete.