Boris Johnson has made it clear that ministers who break the ministerial code should not necessarily have to resign unless they are found to have knowingly misled Parliament.
In a major review of ministerial standards rules, published on Friday, the Prime Minister also rejected his ethics adviser’s request to allow him to launch investigations into ministers’ behaviour without first seeking permission.
It has long been considered a convention that ministers who break the code are expected to resign, although in practice many do not.
The new version of the ministerial rulebook makes it clear that the Prime Minister of the day can choose what sanction, if any, a minister receives.
A statement from the Cabinet Office said the Government did not think it was “proportionate” that any breach of the code should prompt calls for resignation.
‘Sanction is for the PM to determine’
“The sanction which the Prime Minister may decide to issue in a given case is for the Prime Minister to determine, but could include requiring some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period,” it said.
Although some breaches of the code are considered serious, others include receiving gifts of more than £140 or failing to clear a government announcement or speech with No 10.
Mr Johnson has previously faced criticism for failing to take ministerial standards seriously.
In November 2020, a Cabinet Office review found that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, had broken the ministerial code by bullying civil servants in her department.
Mr Johnson decided to take no further action over the rule breach, prompting the resignation of his ethics adviser, Sir Alex Allan.
Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser, asked for the power to launch his own inquiries into breaches of the ministerial code in January.
His demand came amid frustration that No 10 had not disclosed key messages between Mr Johnson and Lord Brownlow, who funded a refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, during his investigation into the issue.
PM can deny probe if not in public interest
A review into Lord Geidt’s powers, published on Friday, concluded that the Prime Minister should “normally” agree to a suggested investigation into one of his ministers, but can refuse if he believes such a probe would not be in the public interest.
“Reflecting the Prime Minister’s accountability for the conduct of the Executive, it is important that a role is retained for the Prime Minister in decisions about investigations,” a statement said.
Since he took on the role, Lord Geidt’s most high-profile investigation has been into the funding of the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat above No 11 Downing Street.
The peer objected to Downing Street’s failure to hand over the messages. His resulting report said Mr Johnson had behaved “unwisely” but had not deliberately misled the team.
A friend told The Times he believed “strongly that the existing system needs strengthening”.