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How the Priti Patel bullying scandal exposed deeper problems

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel on a boat at Southampton docks during the 2019 election campaign - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s response to the Priti Patel bullying scandal has laid bare the weaknesses in the way Westminster is run, says JAMES BALL.

As a country, those of us in the UK may have to accept we are somewhat slow on the uptake. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to our rules governing public life, which despite two centuries or more of evidence to the contrary still work on the principle of everyone concerned being a gentleman of good character.

If we are ever going to wake up to the glaringly obvious shortcomings of rules for public life based on assuming everyone’s basic decency, it is going to be under a government led by Boris Johnson.

His premiership might be more muted than Donald Trump’s presidency – and more littered with desperate, missing the mark, please-like-me ‘jokes’ – but in his quiet way he is destroying the norms upon which British politics rely just as much as his vivid orange counterpart.

The clues were hardly hidden: in his time before becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson was fired from the Times for dishonesty, fired from the Conservative front bench for dishonesty, conspired to have a reporter beaten up, and routinely littered his journalistic articles with casual lies, misogyny, homophobia, and racism.

To presume good character on Boris Johnson’s part at this point is not so much Bambi-esque naivety as outright Stockholm syndrome.

And yet that’s what the ministerial code – and numerous other codes of practice – are required to do. The ministerial code is based on setting out principles, rather than detailed rules, with the prime minister given the power to decide when to launch an investigation into breaches of it, and similarly then allowed to decide what the outcome of that investigation should be.

It is entirely likely that had Sir Alexander Allan – a former head of the UK’s intelligence agencies – not resigned in protest as the independent advisor on ministerial standards over the handling of Priti Patel’s bullying that Johnson would simply have kept the report entirely buried.

Instead, the electorate is treated to another dose of gaslighting in which Johnson’s team at Number 10 leak his comments to the cabinet against bullying, and the media notes Johnson’s opening statement in the ministerial code opposes bullying, while we all know in practice there are no consequences to doing so.

This is far more damaging even than it first appears, and has ramifications well beyond bullying. If ministers, their advisors, and their officials know that the high standards set by the codes are actually just a joke, something to nudge-wink and leave aside, they will never take them seriously again.

With the gulf between government rhetoric and practice exposed last week, the code was turned from a tool intended to keep ministers honest into a tool used to defend them: we must all be people of good character, because the ministerial code says so. If we weren’t, we’d have been kicked out of the cabinet. As Johnson – who never misses an opportunity to bore the electorate with his superficial knowledge of Latin – might conclude: QED.

Ludicrous as it might sound, the accountability of our entire public sector ultimately relies on the good character of ministers. Special advisors are accountable to parliament via their ministers. Each ministerial department – and thus its civil servants – are ultimately accountable via ministers.

In some cases this is largely a fiction – if an NHS hospital is negligent, that is handled through other mechanisms, of course – but at senior level is a reality. Ministers handle billions of pounds worth of decision-making and often make life-or-death decisions.

We should have the ability to trust in their integrity, and have the confidence that this can be tested, independently – not that a prime minister can shortcut the whole system and wave a scandal away if he is just willing to ignore the checks and balances, most of which in practice rely on appeals to his own decency.

One area where the risks of the erosion of norms are all-too-clear is crisis procurement. The government this year suspended the usual government rules on billions of pounds of urgent procurement for PPE and other key equipment and services vital to the coronavirus response.

This is both absolutely necessary and absolutely certain to result in mistakes. Sometimes governments will buy the wrong thing. Sometimes they will overpay. Sometimes, middlemen will get rich: to take an example, someone may have contracts guaranteeing production time for their clothing, toys, or similar, on Chinese production lines. If they can turn those over to allow faster PPE procurement during a crisis, that may well be worth it – even if they insist on a consultancy fee in exchange that would appal most of us.

But because of all of this, we need to be able to trust the good intentions of ministers. In reality, they are giving us every reason to do otherwise: they should be offering to open up every book, allow every email to be audited, allow subsequent inquiries to separate the forgivable mistakes and compromises from outright incompetence or proper corruption.

This nudge-wink government does the opposite – refusing even to explain apparent ‘VIP’ channels, for companies known to ministers. Such companies would, in an honest government, be subject to at least some extra checks, even during a crisis.

Perhaps it is the right thing to suddenly commission PPE from a company run by a minister’s friend when the country is urgently short on such equipment – but surely, surely that decision should not be made by someone with a bias?

By breaking down the ministerial code and by breaking down the norms around it, the government taints everything that government does with a dangerous air – at best one of impunity, a deepening sense that for this government it’s “one rule for them and no rules for us”. At worst it’s one that starts to look to people like outright corruption, with few avenues left to provide them reassurance it isn’t so.

We are facing the self-imposed crisis of a no-deal Brexit. We have the huge logistical operation of delivering a vaccine ahead of us. We will need to recover from a generational economic crisis. We will need government to play a huge role in our lives in the next few years.

It is our great misfortune that in the hour of greatest need, the government has the worst possible person at its helm. Perhaps this time we’ll learn the lesson not to let that happen again.

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