What is the Ministerial Code? 5 times politicians have resigned for breaching it

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Boris Johnson issued a “full-throated” apology to the House of Commons after the Metropolitan Police unearthed his attendance at one of the 12 lockdown-busting Downing Street parties being investigated so far. After “repeatedly assuring” parliament that he’d broken no Covid rules, many have called for the Prime Minister’s resignation, accusing him of breaching Ministerial Code.

Top historian and member of the upper house of parliament Peter Hennessy said Mr Johnson had become “the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life”, adding that he was no longer worthy of serving the Queen or her country.

He told BBC Radio: “I think we’re in the most severe constitutional crisis involving a prime minister that I can remember.

“The Prime Minister sealed his place in British history as the first lawbreaker to have occupied the premiership.”

Many have called for Mr Johnson to resign following this alleged breach of Ministerial Code.

Justice minister David Wolfson resigned last week when the revelations came to light, saying the Prime Minister’s actions were “inconsistent with the rule of law”.

Others have submitted votes of no confidence in the PM, including former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper, stating: “We have a PM who broke the laws he told the country to follow… I no longer think he is worthy of the great office he holds.”

So, what is the Code and who has contravened it in the past?

What is Ministerial Code?

The Ministerial Code of Conduct sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers and how they discharge their duties.

Most recently updated in 2019, the rules are based on the seven principles of public life. These include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The Code stresses the “overarching duty” ministers should have to comply with the law and “protect the integrity” of public life.

In the case of Mr Johnson, the Code pertinently states on the first page: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.

“Ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister.”

Breaches of the code are usually investigated by an independent adviser on ministerial interests or the Cabinet Secretary, and it’s usually left to the Prime Minister to decide the verdict.

However, as it has no legal basis, uncertainty remains around the repercussions of supposed breaches of the Ministerial Code.

This has resulted in increasing political pressure to put its authority on a statutory footing to hold government ministers accountable.

Who has broken Ministerial Code in the past?

A number of politicians have been found to breach Ministerial Code throughout the years, including current home secretary Priti Patel.

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Priti Patel

Priti Patel has been accused several times of breaching the code. She was forced to resign as international development secretary in November 2017 following unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians, businessmen, and officials.

Ms Patel had spoken to the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting that the prime minister at the time, Theresa May, did not know about, with no officials present.

She conceded in her resignation letter that her actions had fallen below the required standards of transparency and openness.

In November 2020, another inquiry conducted by the Cabinet Office found evidence that Ms Patel had breached the ministerial code following allegations of bullying in the three Government departments in which she had served.

However, Mr Johnson rejected the inquiry stating he had “full confidence” in Ms Patel.

Michael Fallon

The previous secretary of state for defence Michael Fallon was forced to quit in 2017 following allegations of harassment from female journalists.

Accusations included inappropriately touching two journalists, as well as making unsuitable comments to MP Andrea Leadsom during cabinet meetings.

Mr Fallon resigned on November 1 after admitting that his behaviour towards women had fallen “below the high standards” set.

Damian Green

The first secretary of state Damian Green had to resign in December 2017 after making misleading and inaccurate statements about his knowledge of pornography found on his computer in 2008.

The MP was found to have breached the ministerial code in an official report by the Cabinet Office, due to finding public statements he made relating to what he knew about the claims were “inaccurate and misleading”.

Liam Fox

Mr Fox resigned as defence secretary in 2011 due to his working relationship with self-styled advisor Adam Werritty. This working relationship was said to have broken the ministerial code due to the dealings he had with him.

Mr Werritty, a lobbyist, met with Mr Fox on 18 foreign trips despite having no official role.

He was the defence secretary’s former flatmate and best man at his wedding and handed out business cards suggesting to be the former minister’s advisor.

Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell concluded Mr Liam to have breached the ministerial code of conduct.

Sir Gus stated that Mr Fox’s “close and visible association” with Mr Werritty and his misleading use of business cards fuelled a general impression that Mr Werritty spoke on behalf of the British Government.

David Blunkett

Mr Blunkett was forced to quit as work and pensions secretary in 2005 after breaking the ministerial code over paid work he took while out of the cabinet.

He was also previously asked to step down as home secretary in 2004 over claims his office had fast-tracked a visa application for his former lover’s nanny.

Mr Blunkett released a statement saying he was “deeply sorry” for the embarrassment he had caused the then prime minister, Tony Blair.

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