The refusal of Priti Patel to resign as home secretary or for Boris Johnson to dismiss her undermines the ethical integrity of the government and also the value of the ministerial code.
The ministerial code developed out of a recommendation of the first report from the committee on standards in public life, which was published in 1995. The committee was appointed in October 1994 by John Major after the scandal in the House of Commons relating to payments for parliamentary questions. The first chairman was Lord Nolan and he is still remembered for the seven principles of public life, which are the cornerstone of ethical standards in public life throughout the UK, and also in many countries throughout the world.
The precise terms of the ministerial code are agreed by the prime minister after each election, and the code has become sharper in tone as each prime minister has sought to leave little room for debate as to what is expected of ministers.
There can be no doubt as to what the code meant when referring to bullying and harassment. Boris Johnson, in his fourth paragraph of the foreword to the current code, published in August 2019, said: “There must be no bullying and no harassment.” This can only be interpreted to read that if a minister is found to be guilty of either bullying or harassment they must give up their role as a minister. Alex Allan, as adviser to the prime minister on ministerial standards, in his investigation cleared the home secretary of harassment but clearly decided she had breached the ministerial code through bullying.
Much of my period of office, from 2004 to 2007, was concerned with how the prime minister dealt with allegations of misconduct by ministers. The committee wanted to ensure that such allegations were properly investigated by an independent person who would report directly to the prime minister, who would be the final arbiter as to what sanction to apply, though we argued any independent report should be published.
The committee was successful in ensuring there was such an adviser on ministerial standards. One of the first appointees was Philip Mawer, who previously had been an outstanding parliamentary commissioner for standards. He was followed by Allan, who has been a long serving and highly respected civil servant, whom I have worked closely with as a member of the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel. His diligence and integrity cannot be doubted. His resignation speaks for itself as to how the government has dealt with the allegations against the home secretary.
The committee on standards had such a focus on the ministerial code and how it operated because there had already been examples of ministers being unfairly treated and forced to resign through media pressure. Lord Mandelson had been forced to resign in 1998 following allegations regarding his home loan, and secondly in 2001 over his relations with the Hinduja brothers. After he had resigned a second time an independent investigation found he had done nothing wrong.
There was also the case of David Blunkett who resigned in 2004 over allegations of fast-tracking a visa for his lover’s nanny. And again in 2005 when a conflict arose regarding shares in a DNA company. In neither case was the resignation prefaced by an independent investigation.
In this latest farrago, what has created such a bad smell about the recent allegations is the prime minister’s delay in coming to a conclusion about them. The investigation took place many months ago and he has sat on it, presumably because he was fearful that Patel would have to leave the cabinet, and such a resignation would undermine the political balance in his cabinet and upset his supporters among the ranks of MPs.
It has always been my view that the ministerial code is an important check on the misconduct of ministers and is a key element of the checks and balances of our democratic system. Boris Johnson – through his failure to act – has weakened its value in our democracy.
• Sir Alistair Graham was chair of the committee on standards in public life from 2004 to 2007