Boris Johnson Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked below article

The rule-breaking Prime Minister has rewritten the rules to suit himself, writes Sean Ledwith

Having somehow survived the scandal surrounding lockdown parties in Downing Street, Boris Johnson has cynically rewritten the ministerial code of conduct to ensure he can stagger on with his corrupt and shambolic administration. As the Sue Gray report was handily taken off the front pages by Sunak’s windfall tax U-turn, the PM took the opportunity to slide through some insidious changes to the ministerial code of conduct that will tighten his venal grip on power.

Johnson’s Kryptonite

This is the set of rules in place since WW2 that British cabinet members are supposed to abide by in their time in office. They were – before last week – based on “Seven Principles of Public Life” including (try not to laugh) honesty, integrity, openness and accountability. Obviously for Johnson these are all the equivalent of Kryptonite so he has gone for the straightforward solution of simply deleting them from the code! As the Labour Chair of the MPs privileges committee Chris Bryant rightly points out, the new code effectively means: “If you break the rules just rewrite the rule book is the new motto of this despicable government”

Moral vacuum

Before Johnson took a knife to it, the code indicated that ministers “will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister if they knowingly mislead parliament”. In his revised, post-lockdown version, minor violations of the code will no longer warrant such an outcome and instead “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period will suffice”.

With no apparent trace of irony, the updated code continues: “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”. Only the moral vacuum on legs that is Boris Johnson could regard it as appropriate that a sanctioned lawbreaker who presided over an office that committed 126 lockdown violations should have some input on investigations about conduct. Downing Street regards this modification as necessary to prevent “incentives for trivial or vexatious complaints, which may be made for partisan reasons”.

Presumably this includes trivial complaints that at the height of a viral catastrophe that claimed almost 200,000 lives, the PM and his acolytes were riotously flouting public health guidelines, abusing cleaning and security staff, engaging in brawls and vomiting all over public property. It probably also includes vexatious notions that maybe it is not a great idea to have a chief executive of the state who either does not understand the law or displays blatant contempt for it.


Johnson is not entirely out of the woods regarding his lockdown-busting antics. He is still facing a parliamentary investigation by the Privileges Committee into whether he misled the House of Commons about the parties debacle. His self-serving changes to the ministerial code, however, now mean that even if that body finds him guilty, the pressure on him to step down will be significantly reduced.

If Johnson survives censure by that body it will only further underline how out of touch the establishment has become with public opinion. Polling immediately after the Sue Gray report indicated an overwhelming majority of voters believe Johnson should be ejected from Number 10 for his appalling behaviour. Botched investigations by both the Met and civil service have left the country still at the mercy of an amoral sociopath clearly unfit for public office. A dysfunctional establishment has clearly lost the ability to dispose of its own rubbish. Anger about the cost of living crisis needs to be allied to anger that Johnson is still raising a glass to his survival.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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