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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
08 June 2022
In Context: Ministerial Code

In Context: Ministerial Code

Following on from Sue Gray's report looking into partygate, there are suggestions Boris Johnson has broken the ministerial code - But what is it, and what could happen to the PM?

What is the code?

The ministerial code outlines the standards of conduct expected of government ministers.
Both the UK and Scottish Government codes dictate the “overarching duty” of ministers to comply with law and to apply by the Seven Principles of Life; selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
In 1992 the UK Government welcomed what was then called Questions of Procedure for Ministers, it was later changed to Ministerial Code in 1997, by Tony Blair. 
Boris Johnson’s government made the highly controversial move to change the code to allow ministers to apologise for a breach rather than resign, for matter considered to be “minor” on 27 May 2022.
The Scottish ministerial code, which was introduced in 2008, takes its original form from the Westminster version. However, it has been adapted to the context of the Scottish Government. 

What is the difference between the ministerial code in Scotland and England?

Although the Scottish ministerial code is based on the code set out by Westminster, there are some differences.
The new, and quite major, difference between the code followed at Holyrood and at Westminster is Boris’s recent new amendment. 
A UK Government policy statement said it was “disproportionate” to expect ministers to resign or face the sack for “minor” violations of the code’s provisions.
Instead, it has been updated, giving the Prime Minister the option of ordering a lesser sanction such as “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period”.
As things stand, MSPs will still be expected to resign if they are found to have made a breach of the code at Holyrood. 
Another key difference is that in Scotland, the code sets out specific rules around how issues are brought to collective discussion. 
The Code in the UK is far more ambiguous. It states that, “no definitive criteria can be given for issues which engage collective responsibility.”
The difference in codes provides Westminster with far more flexibility.

Has anyone ever fallen on their ministerial sword?

Damian Green was the last MP to have broken the ministerial code. He was forced to resign in December 2017, after he was referred for investigation by then cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. The then Secretary of State was found to have made misleading statements about a police inquiry into pornography found on a computer in his office in 2008. Green twice breached the honesty requirement set within the Seven Principles of Public Life set out in the ministerial code. 

What about Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson?

Christopher Geidt, Johnson’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, published in his report on Partygate, suggesting there is ‘legitimate question’ whether the fixed penalty fine issued to the Prime Minister constitutes a breach in ministerial code. No 10 then sent a letter to Lord Geidt, in which Johnson said, “taking account of all the circumstances, I did not breach the code”.
The PM stressed that he had apologised for attending a birthday party on 19 June 2020. 
According to the recent controversial change of the ministerial code, Johnson responded correctly, meaning if he has breached, his job will be safe.
In recent years, Scotland’s First Minister has been at the centre of a potential breach of ministerial code.
Nicola Sturgeon referred herself to be independently investigated over whether she had broken the ministerial code during the Scottish Government’s investigation of accusations of harassment against her predecessor Alex Salmond.
The probe was widened in January 2021 to investigate accusations that she had misled parliament. 
The First Minister was cleared in March 2021 by senior Irish Lawyer James Hamilton.
Although his findings did determine a "genuine failure of recollection", he concluded they were not deliberate; therefore, she was found not to have been in breach of ministerial code. 

What do people say about Boris Johnson changing the ministerial code?

"In a week when Boris Johnson's lies to parliament about industrial rule-breaking at the heart of government were finally exposed, he should be tendering his resignation but is instead watering down the rules to save his own skin."
Angela Rayner, MP

"Deliberately misleading parliament, if he is found guilty of that, there is very little option… for the prime minister to continue after that."
Douglas Ross MSP

"The prime minister shouldn't be allowed to decide on his own punishment - with zero accountability. This is making him judge and jury in his own case."
Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat chief whip

“These are the actions of a guilty man - a Prime Minister caught bang to rights on his lockdown law-breaking and now desperate to save his own skin. 
Kirsten Oswald, MP

"Boris Johnson has not only repeatedly lied and broken the law, he has now destroyed the Ministerial Code so Ministers who break the rules don’t have to resign." 
David Lammy, MP

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