If Boris Johnson get’s his way then he will destroy what’s left of integrity in British public life says Richard Heller.

Boris Johnson is not the first British Prime Minister to use state power – and taxpayer money – to vilify political opponents. 

It was standard practice up to the Regency period. Some of Britain’s greatest writers and artists (and dozens of lesser lights) took bribes from governments to manufacture propaganda against their chosen targets.  It died away in Victorian times but was revived powerfully by Neville Chamberlain, who used dark agents to cow or undermine his domestic enemies, including his own Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. In modern times, the Thatcher and Blair governments regularly briefed against their domestic critics (Mrs Thatcher had the decency to do so openly, through her Press Secretary Bernard Ingham).

But in a short time, Boris Johnson has taken the process further than any of his predecessors, unhindered by any sense of shame. Peter Oborne set this out some days ago. Through anonymous briefings from Number 10, opponents of Brexit have faced accusations akin to treason in the media, while Phillip Hammond, was alleged to have committed a criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act. The accusations were false, but none have been retracted, and no one in government has been disciplined for initiating them or giving them currency. 

And we paid for them all. Those who made them were paid with taxpayer money – although the government will not tell us their salaries.

If Boris Johnson gets away with this behaviour, he will destroy what’s left of integrity in British public life and turn the British state into a dismal copy of Donald Trump’s America. 

A few simple and costless reforms would block this descent. 

The first is a simple amendment of the Code of Conduct for Ministers. Paragraph 1 3 c warns them against misleading Parliament, and tells them that they will be expected to resign if they do. This should be extended to cover misleading the media and the general public, to cover not only wilfully misleading statements but also those which, in legal phraseology, are reckless as to the truth, and, especially, to cover statements made on a minister’s behalf by special advisers or other personal appointees.

Arising from this, Paragraph 3 of the Code should be strengthened to make Ministers take full personal responsibility including legal liability for any words or actions by special advisers on their authority. There should be a consequential amendment in the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers.

Third, make clear in the Code and elsewhere (if necessary by legislation) that no statement by or on behalf of a minister which is intended for publication is subject to Parliamentary or Crown privilege, and that no restriction against disclosure may be applied to any preparatory papers or discussions for such a statement. No legal costs arising from such a statement should be met from public funds. This would be a very powerful deterrent against lies and smears by ministers or special advisers.

Fourth, it would strengthen the independence and integrity of the media if the Code warned ministers and special advisers against any personal attempt to influence the career of any individual journalist, whether favourably or unfavourably. In particular, they should use no means of complaint against any journalist which would not be available to a member of the general public. Indeed, there should be a general rule for anyone in public life to use no special means of pursuing any private interest. The words “Do you know who I am?” should be met with derision, not deference.

Fifth, the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers should oblige them to uphold the seven principles of public life. As with Snow White’s small companions, it’s hard to remember them all at once, so here they are: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, Leadership.   Wilful failure to uphold any of them will be grounds for dismissal.

Sixth, not only special advisers but civil servants should be warned against obeying any direction which appears to contravene the seven principles. However, they should be able to access immediate advice in such a case from outside their department. Perhaps the Committee on Standards in Public Life (we have one) could provide such a service. Or we might make the Lord Chancellor an independent, non-political office and restore it to its historic role as keeper of the Sovereign’s conscience. 

Incidentally, the Code of Conduct for Ministers contains a new Foreword from Boris Johnson, suggesting that observance of the Code is an essential part of delivering Brexit. Since the Code is intended for all ministers whatever their policies, this suggestion is totally inappropriate and should be removed at once. It reflects poorly on Boris Johnson and on the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, or whoever else allowed him to put it there. 

If, as I suspect, Boris Johnson does nothing to curb taxpayer-funded lying and smearing it will be up to us voters to make this an election issue. Ask your local candidates, especially the Conservative, where they stand, and if you like all or any of the above reform agenda, please help yourselves.

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