The Mexican stand-off over Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article has intensified a degree this afternoon, with the news that he will face a formal investigation under the Party’s new Code of Conduct.
That code is not a widely-read document (before today, at least), but Paul gave a run-down of what its process entails this morning.
If that process is indeed being invoked for Johnson, it poses a number of questions about how it’s all going to work:
- What happened to the “confidentiality” bit? Almost the first element of the code’s stated procedure commits that: “When we receive a formal complaint, we will investigate it in a timely and confidential manner…The investigation should be thorough, impartial and objective, and carried out with sensitivity and due respect for the rights of all parties concerned.” It’s not clear quite how that squares with someone apparently informing national newspapers that complaints have been received and are set to be investigated.
- Who appoints the investigator? The code requires investigation by “someone with appropriate experience and no prior involvement in the complaint”. With the Party Chairman and the Leader both having given public comments criticising Johnson’s actions, it’d be interesting to know who picks that person.
- Has an Investigating Officer been appointed, and if so, who are they? The code enshrines the Nolan Principle of Openness as a requirement for the actions of all Conservative representatives, so on that basis presumably we will be told who is investigating.
- How long will the investigation take? The complaint presumably relates to this single newspaper article, and will therefore be relatively swift, but we don’t know the planned timescale.
- Who will appoint the panel to judge the case? Unless the investigator deems the complaint “obviously trivial, and/or lacking in merit and/or cannot fairly be investigated or cannot be investigated”, the evidence he or she has gathered is passed to a panel for judgement. There were reasonable questions about whether Brandon Lewis could fairly do so, given that he has already given a public opinion on Johnson’s actions. However, I’m told that the Party Chairman won’t appoint the panel in this case as it relates to an MP. That itself throws up a bit of a mystery – the Code of Conduct specifies only “a panel…appointed by the Party Chairman”, so it isn’t clear on what basis someone else would have the power to pick the panel, or the existence of any exception for cases relating to MPs. One would have imagined a code exists in order to provide general, not intermittent, rules. Plus, if the Party Chairman won’t appoint a panel in this instance, then the question remains: who will do so in his place?
- Who will the panel report to? Again, the Code of Conduct is quite specific that “the panel will provide their findings to the Party Chairman”, who then decides whether the matter is passed on to the Leader or the Board. But Lewis has already gone on the record to give a verdict on the case before investigation – can he play a role in this process while fulfilling the Code’s requirement for the Nolan Principle of Objectivity? Even if so, if the convention is that he doesn’t involve himself in picking panels when a complaint relates to an MP, does that apply to this role, too?
- Who will decide the penalty, if he’s found guilty? If the investigator presents a case, and the panel concludes that Johnson is guilty of breaching the Code, then Lewis or whoever acts in his place passes the case on for punishment to either “the Leader and/or to the Board of the Conservative Party”. The Leader has, like Lewis, already publicly said things that appear to pre-judge whether Johnson did something wrong, so presumably ought to be ruled out on the grounds of objectivity, too. That would leave the Party Board – a group which, you guessed it, officially includes the Party Chairman and the Prime Minister. It also includes various other MPs, whom we might imagine to be ruled out on the same (unwritten) basis as Lewis not judging his Parliamentary colleagues. So who, if anyone, can resolve the case?
In other words, it all gets less and less clear by the minute.
To complicate matters further, although May swiftly agreed with the Party Chairman’s decision to publicly demand an apology from Johnson, Downing Street now appears to be at some pains to deny any prior involvement in his decision to do so, suggesting that Lewis was freelancing without asking them beforehand. Oddly, that implies that they share his analysis but do not wish to share any responsibility for expressing it in public, even though the Prime Minister chose to do so on television.
We will report the answers to the above questions as and when we received them.