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System for investigating breaches of standards in public life needs a complete overhaul


4 min read

The story of standards in Whitehall and Westminster and the importance of upholding them is best told through the stories of successive prime ministers.

Tony Blair and David Cameron followed the then consensus of the “good chap” theory of government put forward by Lord Hennessey  – that politicians would instinctively know where the unwritten lines of the constitution lie and would act accordingly with restraint and good sense.

Blair pushed the good chap theory to its limits, and many would argue beyond, with his handling of the lead up the Iraq war. Cameron committed us to the Brexit referendum without any proper process to understand the enormous implications that a decision to leave would have for this country.

The descent in to the abyss came with the arrival of Boris Johnson

Where individual examples of concern over ministerial behaviour arose in the Cameron government: Liam Fox and the involvement of his adviser Adam Werritty, the very public falling out of Michael Gove and Theresa May’s former special adviser Fiona Hill, and Andrew Mitchell with the Plebgate affair. There was a relatively sharp investigation undertaken by then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Haywood and Sue Gray with decisions then taken on advice of the prime minister.

As prime minister, Theresa May was strong on both process and ethics and took tough decisions when they were needed – even when they worked against her direct political interests. A key example is the dismissal of her close ally and deputy Damian Green because he had not been honest about the presence of pornography on his office computer. Those inside government at the time now argue that her principal advisers were less fastidious in their behaviour, but that the prime minster herself was committed to upholding standards.

The descent in to the abyss came with the arrival of Boris Johnson. There is not space in this short article to list all of the examples where he rode roughshod over proper process, failed to uphold standards when it was inconvenient to him and told untruths. However a few highlights will suffice – the illegal prorogation of Parliament, the “hit list” of longstanding permanent secretaries, and overruling his ethics advisor Alex Allan’s advice over the Priti Patel bullying inquiry. Many feared that we were entering a new era where standards of conduct would be honoured in the breach with impunity. Partygate caught up with the former prime minister, precisely because it cut through to the public in a way that previous breaches hadn’t.

Liz Truss was not in her role long enough to form a view on her commitment to upholding standards, although she was quick to unceremoniously dismiss Tom Scholar, a very respected senior civil servant in the Treasury.

Rishi Sunak began his term positively, pledging on the steps of No 10 on taking office that he would lead a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. However, despite this, problems with upholding standards have far from gone away. For Rishi Sunak, this is in part due to some ill-judged appointments – despite apparently being given advice of the risks – that have subsequently led to three ministerial resignations.

Telling the standards story in this way points to the obvious weakness in the current arrangements – that they are simply too dependent on the prime minister in charge. Reform is certainly needed as many others have said, but in my view this is less to do with the standards themselves than the way in which complaints are investigated and decisions made on them. Put simply, what we have now is opaque, ad-hoc and ineffective. To give just one example, the ethics adviser is not currently able to independently conduct his own investigations. Ultimately, the decisions on politicians should be made by politicians but the processes leading up to this and the way the decisions are made need complete overhaul.

Does any of this matter? Well, I believe it is fundamental to good government and the bond of trust between the electors and the elected. Without this, the essential consent of the public to the very decisions that governments need to make will not be there.


Lord Kerslake, crossbench peer and former head of the civil service

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