Tories reject watchdog’s call for Boris Johnson to lose power to decide on sleaze investigations

It’s a ‘basic principle’ that the prime minister ‘has to be able to decide who is in his cabinet’, Oliver Dowden says

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 15 November 2021 11:07
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'Coward!': Boris Johnson absent as UK MPs debate corruption after Paterson fiasco

The Conservatives have again rejected a watchdog’s call for Boris Johnson to be stripped of the power to decide whether ministers are investigated for sleaze, despite rising public anger.

The independent committee on standards in public life made the recommendation – followed by a startling warning that Britain risk slipping into becoming “a corrupt country”.

It followed Mr Johnson’s refusal to allow investigations of Robert Jenrick and Matt Hancock, a controversy then fuelled by the botched attempt to fix anti-sleaze rules to clear Owen Paterson.

But, despite the backlash and the Tories’ slump in the polls, the party chair Oliver Dowden indicated there would be no rethink in Downing Street.

“It has been the case in the past, and will continue to be the case, that the prime minister has discussions with the independent advisor to determine whether to conduct those investigations,” Mr Dowden.

It is a “basic principle” that the “prime minister ultimately has to be able to decide who is in his cabinet,”, the party chair argued.

Mr Dowden also rejected the warning by Jonathan Evans, the head of the committee, of a slide into corruption, insisting: “I think we are an exceptionally long way from that.”

He also defended reopening the hunt for a chair of the media regulator Ofcom – in what is widely seen as an attempt to secure the job for former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre- insisting only a “very small field” of eligible candidates had come forward.

Criticism of Mr Johnson’s refusal to apologise for the Paterson affair was “semantics’, he insisted, because he had acknowledged that mistakes had been made.

Mr Dowden also claimed the public did not care about that refusal, because it wanted the government to be focusing on the “job at hand”, tackling the climate crisis and delivering booster jabs.

Two weeks ago, Lord Evans said the prime minister’s adviser on ministerial interests, Christopher Geidt, must have “meaningful independence” to carry out his job.

The post-holder should be appointed by a majority-independent panel, not by No 10, able to initiate their own investigations and have the authority to determine breaches of the ministerial code, his report said.

Reports should also be published within eight weeks of submission to the prime minister, with sanctions for breaches set out, including apologies fines and asking for a minister’s resignation.

But Mr Dowden, on corruption, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we are an exceptionally long way from that.

“The fact that you are subjecting me at a little after 8 o’clock in the morning to a forensic going over in terms of what the government has done – in a corrupt country you don’t find this kind of level of free press scrutiny and accountability.

“We introduced as a government the register of lobbyists in 2014. We are constantly improving standards.”

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