Boris Johnson’s failure to act on sleaze may be more than ‘carelessness’, ethics watchdog suggests

Head of committee on standards in public life also warns of ‘cut through’ with angry public

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 11 January 2022 11:57
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Cabinet minister orders people to stay at home an hour before No10 party took place

Boris Johnson’s failure to stamp down on multiple allegations of Tory sleaze and rule-breaking may be more than “carelessness”, an ethics watchdog has suggested.

Jonathan Evans also warned the prime minister that the scandals – from the “Owen Paterson affair”, to the funding of his luxury flat refit, to “partygate” – had reached “cut through” with an angry public.

Mr Johnson has rejected calls to beef up anti-sleaze powers made by the committee on standards in public life, including giving up his veto on whether ministers are investigated for sleaze.

But Lord Evans, the committee’s head, pointed to the numerous controversies now rocking the government, including the leaked email revealing 100 people were invited to a lockdown-busting party in the No 10 garden.

“All of those, I think, have demonstrated that there is, at least, a carelessness amongst people in government issues – and possibly no more than that,” he told an inquiry by MPs.

“You only need to look at the media reporting, the front pages of the newspapers over the last few months – and to some extent the polling – to suggest that people are concerned about these issues.

“This is an issue which has reached what they call ‘cut through’ – people care and feel that those people who are represent them in parliament, and are being paid to undertake public roles, should be living up to the standards they profess to live up to.”

William Wragg, the Tory chair of the Commons public administration committee – and vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee – backed Lord Evans, saying: “That’s quite correct, for what it’s worth.

Lord Evans also backed Sue Gray, the civil servant investigating the evidence of multiple No 10 parties in breach of Covid rules, to get to the bottom of the controversy.

“I have no doubt that she will follow the facts and come forward with her recommendations without fear or failure,” he told the committee.

The committee called, last year, for ethics watchdogs to be given proper teeth by being put on statutory basis, including the committee advising whether ex-ministers should take on private jobs linked to their former roles.

The advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba) should also be able to ban ex-ministers from lobbying for up to five years after leaving government, it said.

And sanctions, such as fines, should be introduced for ignoring the rules, its report said – with informal lobbying reported to officials.

But Mr Johnson has shown no interest in adopting the crackdown, actively rejecting the proposal for him to lose the power to decide whether investigations are launched for possible breaches of the ministerial code.

That idea will now be the subject of his talks with Christopher Geidt, his adviser on ministerial interests, who investigated the ‘flatgate’ controversy.

Lord Evans told MPs on the committee: “We have seen a whole series of issues over the last few months: the Owen Paterson affair, the attempt to change the rules over standards investigations in the middle of the investigation into Mr Paterson’s actions, the questions around the redecoration of Downing Street, in particular the very bad processes that were clearly in place for keeping Lord Geidt properly informed, the Greensill affair – and now partygate.”

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