This may be the first time ever – at least in recent history – that a cabinet minister has broken the ministerial code and not been sacked or resigned.
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) November 20, 2020
At the time of writing, the above tweet has 7,500 ‘likes’ on Twitter and has been retweeted at least 1,700 times. Fake news, it seems, travels fast.
That is not to say that Priti Patel did not breach the Ministerial Code (‘the Code’). The official finding – which interested readers can find here – is that she did. The Code states “Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent” with it, and Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial standards, reported that “Instances of the behaviour reported to the Cabinet Office” fit the definition of bullying (but not harassment).
Boris Johnson has indicated that he will keep the Home Secretary in post. In this he apparently enjoys the broad support of Conservative MPs but not that of Sir Alex, who has resigned.
This decision has sparked yet another debate about standards in public life, which is fair enough. But it has led some commentators to grossly overstate the significance of a ‘breach of the Ministerial Code’. Whether or not someone should be automatically dismissed for breaching the Code is quite a separate question to whether or not someone should be dismissed for bullying.
As we shall see, the former is a question to which the answer is ‘no’. Were the Prime Minister to succumb to what the Institute for Government refers to as “increasing pressure” to put the Code on a legal footing, we should find ourselves with remarkably few ministers left standing.
To understand why, it is helpful to have actually read the Code, the latest version of which is here. Doing so reveals that yes, it prohibits serious misconduct, including alleged bullying and indeed having private meetings with foreign officials, the breach which sparked Patel’s last departure from Government.
But it also covers a whole range of things which are, for better or worse, widely regarded as part of modern political life. For example:
“S2.1 The principle of collective responsibility requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached. This in turn requires that the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained.”
Let us hope none of the journalists getting over-excited about a breach of the Code has ever actively participated in one by reporting a leak from the Cabinet. Or how about…
“S1.3a. The principle of collective responsibility applies to all Government Ministers.”
Taken at face value, this dates the last time that “a cabinet minister has broken the ministerial code and not been sacked or resigned” to perhaps March of last year, when four Cabinet ministers abstained during a vote on a motion to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Or failing that maybe 2017, when the then-Foreign Secretary started setting out his personal ‘red lines’ for the Brexit negotiations, in defiance of the Cabinet position.
Perhaps, in this cynical age, it is impossible to read the word ‘guidelines’ without interpreting it as ‘rules we don’t intend to enforce’. But the Code itself is quite explicit about its true nature:
“1.5 The Code provides guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold these standards. It lists the principles which may apply in particular situations. It applies to all members of the Government and covers Parliamentary Private Secretaries in paragraphs 3.7 – 3.12.
“1.6 Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. However, Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.”
The Ministerial Code is far too broad a document for any breach to be ipso facto a mortal political sin – not least because it is not hard to find previous instances where similar conduct has not been similarly punished. It is not designed to be, and was never intended to be, a substitute for the Prime Minister’s discretion as to who serves in the Government.
Both his judgement and his Ministers must be judged on the specifics of any individual allegation of misconduct – not merely on the fact that they have ‘broken the Code’.