Integrity is supposed to keep British ministers in line. It’s clearly not enough

The resignation of Sir Alex Allan, the independent adviser on ministerial standards, was an inevitable consequence of Boris Johnson’s decision to decisively reject Allan’s conclusion that Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code.

The code is clear that bullying behaviour is not allowed, and Allan concluded that instances of the home secretary’s behaviour did meet the definition of bullying. The prime minister disagreed. The messy saga has decisively weakened already limited checks on ministerial behaviour, and demonstrates that if a prime minister is prepared to weather the fallout, they can overrule any independent investigation.

This was recently made clear when Jonathan Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and a former head of MI5, gave an important speech on whether we are “in a post-Nolan age”. Michael Nolan was one of Evans’ predecessors and the man who – at a time when John Major’s government was mired in accusations of sleaze and corruption – first articulated the seven principles of public life. They set out in a formal way how public-sector leaders and politicians should conduct themselves – and have informed ministerial and civil service rules ever since.

The principles are good ones: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. They are reproduced in the ministerial code, which sets the standards to which ministers should be held. Johnson, in his forward to the latest version of the code, describes the principles as “precious” and says that they “must be honoured at all times”.

The integrity of those who hold high office is crucial for democracy and the effectiveness of the state. Simply holding elections is not sufficient in itself to be governed well and fairly; leaders need to abide by certain standards of behaviour. As Evans says, the seven principles “define the character of our political system”. So it is worrying when someone such as Evans, who is no radical critic of the establishment, calls our attention to the perception that politicians are disregarding these standards, and that when breaches occur nothing seems to happen.

British government has never been as incorruptible as some on the inside might like to think, but nor has it been as tainted as popular perception would have it. Politicians and other public officials are not all on the make, and over the last few decades corruption scandals have, on the whole, been small-scale. Misuse of funds to buy duck houses and bath plugs is wrong, but better that than siphoning off millions to benefit private interests or to fund political campaigns.

Yet Evans is right to highlight signs of real concern. No prime minister welcomes propriety investigations, but the lack of a probe into allegations that the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, improperly intervened in Richard Desmond’s Westferry planning development, and foot-dragging over the accusations of bullying at the Home Office, are problematic. Indeed the fact that it is the prime minister himself who is the sole arbiter of the ministerial code, with the cabinet secretary as his impossibly conflicted adviser, creates an unhealthy tension between high standards of conduct and political interest. There are signs, too, of patronage in public appointments. Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, has taken the unusual step of making his worries public.

All governments make political appointments, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with bringing in some ideological fellow travellers to fill top jobs, but the principle needs to be competence first, political affiliation second. Riddell describes how ministers are stretching the rules, including trying to pack interview panels, as in the competition for the Office for Students, the public body responsible for regulating higher education, which “has a panel of five where there is no one with senior recent experience of higher education or a student involved”.

Then there’s the question of contracts. The National Audit Office last week published its report into government procurement during the pandemic. It shows that of the £18bn worth of contracts awarded in response to Covid-19, £10.5bn were granted directly without any competition. It was right for the government to act quickly, and the usual procurement rules needed to be suspended in the early stages of the crisis. But such vast sums of money needed tighter checks and auditing than appears to have been the case. These are the conditions in which corruption flourishes.

What should the government do? There is no simple answer, but solutions need to come from the top. In actions as well as words, the prime minister should demonstrate the value he personally places on the seven principles of public life. Where wrongdoing is alleged, it should be investigated. And the institutions and processes that exist to safeguard our standards of propriety should be welcomed and themselves protected. The British system is weak on formal checks, and relies heavily on its leaders showing restraint and self-policing. The PM’s response to the Priti Patel investigation shows that informality offers insufficient protection.