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Liz Triss, who is likely to become Prime Minister next week, has indicated she may not appoint an ethics adviser. He said he had “always acted with integrity”, so he didn’t need an official to advise him.
Like many other aspects of British politics, ethics advisers and the code they adhere to do not exist as part of written law. The British constitution is essentially a mixture of statutes and conventions. It is famously unwritten, but only in the sense that there is no single coded document. In practice, it is “written” because ruling parties accept and observe conventions. These conventions may be in response to wrongdoing and conflict.
The ethics adviser role exists because a series of scandals in the early 1990s led then-prime minister John Major to appoint the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The committee identified seven standards – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – that people should expect from their ministers.
These, known as the Nolan Principles after the first chair of the committee, were enshrined in the Ministerial Code. The code had existed in various arrangements since the 1970s, before being formalized in 1992 and published under its current title five years later. It is updated from time to time by the Prime Minister.
Arrangements for investigating breaches of the code of conduct were ad hoc, until in 2006 then Prime Minister Tony Blair established the Office of the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests. The adviser “may, at the request of the Prime Minister, investigate alleged violations of ministerial code”. The consultant will also publish an annual report.
Two of the four ethics advisers have resigned under Boris Johnson.
The first appointed by Blair was Sir John Bourne, who served until 2007. In July 2007, new Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed Sir Philip Mawr, who served until November 2011. of their authority.
Mawr’s successor was Sir Alex Allen, who was appointed by David Cameron and held the post during Theresa May’s prime ministership. Johnson asked him to investigate the behavior of Home Secretary Priti Patel, after his permanent secretary publicly resigned following allegations by staff of Patel’s bullying.
Allen said Patel had “breached ministerial code”. The Prime Minister immediately responded on 20 November 2020 that his decision “did not violate ministerial code … and considers that the matter is now closed”. Later that day, Allen resigned.
After five months without an adviser, the Prime Minister appointed Lord Gedt as the Queen’s former private secretary. Johnson also “updated” the terms of reference so that ministers who break the rules will no longer be expected to automatically resign.
Gaddet’s tenure was marked by months of speculation over whether he had been misled by the Prime Minister over funding the redevelopment of the private quarters at 10 Downing Street. But it was over the government’s apparent willingness to break international law on steel tariffs that, in June 2022, Gedt resigned.
Both advisers were, in Sir Alex’s words, “bypassed” by a Prime Minister who, according to Lord Gedt, risked a “deliberate and deliberate breach of ministerial code”, and his own ethics. left the adviser in “an impossible and awkward position”.
Governing by convention
The prime minister’s ethics advisers are a shining example of the British style of governance, known by some as “the middle-throw”. This description once reflected a love of, yes, minister-type culture (referring to the 1980s sitcom). But in an increasingly partisan and polarized age, it appears less benign.
The Ethics Advisor is not independent, has no autonomy, and is not appointed through an open process. Action is political. And as the government has said: “It is the prime minister’s responsibility to set standards of behaviour.”
With his comments, Truss highlighted an essential anomaly: not only does the prime minister personally select an official who advises him on the integrity of his and his colleagues’ conduct, but any For an inquiry also, the Prime Minister has to approve it. . And if that adviser resigns because his advice was ignored, the prime minister can simply choose not to replace him.
It is said that the British Constitution is “what happens”. It may or may not happen.