Jill Rutter reflects on the scandals that continue to dog the UK government under Rishi Sunak, setting out what Sunak will have to do if he’s going to turn things around and make integrity, professionalism, and accountability the hallmark of his government.
The UK government seems to have fallen victim to a culture of irresponsibility and shamelessness. Ministers – and some civil servants as partygate showed – appear to take the view that their behaviour does not matter, and the only crime is to be found out.
The litany of recent scandals would all have been avoided if those involved had stopped to think twice about how what they were doing would look if it became public – and then either not acted, or decided they were too compromised to put themselves forward for positions of responsibility.
That applies to Nadhim Zahawi accepting the position of Chancellor while still sorting out his murky tax affairs with HMRC; Rishi Sunak not worrying that his wife was opting for non-dom tax status – nor that he had held on to a green card while he was an ambitious government minister with ambitions for promotion; it applies to the civil servants in No.10 and the Cabinet Office who partied during lockdown and were mainly worried about being caught on camera.
It also applies to Richard Sharp who did not seem to understand that he needed to avoid being embroiled in sorting out Boris Johnson’s finances while in the running for a major public appointment – one where integrity and independence were crucial characteristics for any suitable appointee.
And it applies in spades to Boris Johnson who seemed to spend much of his tenure at No.10 dealing with the consequences of his inability to manage his finances.
In recent years, leaders in British public life have had their integrity called into question with alarming frequency. It is no accident that the latest publication from the Committee on Standards in Public Life focuses on the role of leaders in upholding the Nolan principles.
But given that we clearly cannot rely on self-restraint from our leaders, the focus must be on the institutions that try to uphold standards in public life. Before Christmas Rishi Sunak finally found someone to fill the gap left by the summer departure of Lord Geidt. Before the position was filled, he had to find an ad hoc investigator of complaints against the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab. But at least now there is an ethics adviser he can ask for advice on Nadhim Zahawi’s position.
As soon as that investigation concludes, Sunak needs to publish the report in full – and, if he wants to maintain any faith in the system, he will have little option but to accept Sir Laurie Magnus’s advice.
As importantly though, Sunak needs to act to ensure that his government is not dogged by the scandals which proliferated under his predecessors. He missed the opportunity in December to widen the remit or bolster the independence of his ethics adviser – but that may be another area where on more sober reflection he feels he should U-turn.
He should also make clear to ministers that he wants them now to ‘bring up the bodies’ – in other words, to make the Propriety and Ethics team in the Cabinet Office aware of any potential conflicts of interest not yet declared, and ensure that any subsequent revelations of matters undisclosed would result in dismissal.
Sunak and his Cabinet Secretary (who appears damaged himself by his efforts to help Johnson navigate his way out of the many holes he dug himself into) need also to bolster the role of permanent secretaries in laying down boundaries. Case told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the summer that Johnson’s government was one that ‘liked to test the boundaries’. Sunak should make clear that he and Case want permanent secretaries to be actively patrolling those boundaries, and that they will be backed up if they face opposition from their ministers in trying to uphold standards.
If the government ever legislated to put the civil service on statutory basis, as is now proposed by the Brown Commission on the Future of the UK, it could give those responsibilities the force of law and provide for external reporting routes along the lines of existing permanent secretary duties on value for money.
Even if the well of new Johnson-related scandals is running dry – far from certain – and Sunak might hope his administration behaves better, much of this year will still be dominated by the continuing fall out of the last but one prime minister. The Privileges Committee investigation into whether Johnson misled parliament kicks into gear in March and the Covid inquiry will start taking public evidence soon. Some of that at least is likely to be a reminder of the dubious procurement shortcuts which ministers took during the pandemic.
The Major government in the 1990s was ultimately undone by a mixture of loss of reputation for economic competence after Black Wednesday, the effects of deteriorating public services and the stench of sleazy ministerial and parliamentary behaviour. Major was not rescued by putting in place a functioning economic framework nor attempting to address sleaze through the original Nolan Commission.
Rishi Sunak risks his government being undone by the same combination – but on a more epic scale. There were economic positives as well as negatives from the UK’s ERM exit – but there is no discernible upside from the UK’s brief flirtation with Trussonomics. Public services were run down but not crippled by strikes. And while too many of Major’s colleagues played fast and loose with the rules and brought the government into disrepute, neither Major nor his predecessor were themselves the prime architect of the sleaze.
Rishi Sunak claimed when he entered Downing Street that he wanted to put integrity, professionalism and accountability back at the heart of UK government. He is running out of time to make integrity the hallmark of his government.
By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.