There is a whiff of ‘the house always wins’ to today’s reports in the Times that Lord Evans, the head of the Government’s ethics watchdog, has called for the Prime Minister to be stripped of the authority to initiate investigations into alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code.
After all, as the papers own reporting on the subject made very clear, it was not the politicians but Jeremy Heywood, the mandarin supreme, who played the key role in bringing Lex Greensill into the heart of Whitehall.
Yet inevitably the official conclusion is even more powers for officials – one more step on the path towards what our editor described as “the Sue Gray-ification of British politics”. If there were proposals to place greater controls on the behaviour of civil servants, they went unreported.
Of course, under Evans’ proposals the Prime Minister would still retain control over what sanction to apply to ministers found to have breached the Code. But how long would that have lasted?
Consider that Evans also intends to detail a more “proportionate range of sanctions” and for the advisor on the Code to have their own staff. It is not difficult to see how, when the adviser is independently assessing the severity of a breach and there is a gradated schedule of sanctions to hand, Johnson or his successors will come under fresh pressure to renounce yet more of their remaining discretion.
This is the latest front in the war between those who think the exercise of political power should be held politically accountable, and those who would place official controls on it. We encounter it most often in the realm of public appointments, where ministers have been making an explicitly political push to shift the balance in the character of appointees whilst the éminences grises attack them for exercising ‘patronage’.
But the vision of independent panels appointing independent panels poses the question: what are they independent from? Ultimately, Parliament and the public. Instead, power simply collects in less accountable hands, and rule is laid upon rule without regard for the overall damage it can do to the political end of the system. As our editor put it:
“In other words, more of the medicine that is worsening the current illness. Obviously, Parliament needs some minimum standard to curb abuses, of which a register of interests will be part. But yet more restrictions on people who have served as Ministers will mean yet another incentive not to become one.”
We should be wary of criticisms of politicians marking their own homework coming from an officialdom which could be said to be doing the same. Nor should the remedy to the Greensill fiasco impede the Government’s worthwhile work to introduce more political accountability – and thus, political power – to the system.