Boris Johnson has been accused of creating a “toothless” sleaze watchdog inside Downing Street after he rejected recommendations to give his new ethics adviser powers to launch inquiries into misbehaviour by ministers.
Under new terms of reference, independent adviser on ministerial interests Lord Geidt will be allowed to approach Mr Johnson with concerns about misconduct, but must wait for the green light from the prime minister before opening an investigation.
And the PM will retain his power to act as judge and jury over the finding of guilt and punishments handed out to ministers – even in Lord Geidt’s first investigation, into the propriety of the funding of renovations to Mr Johnson’s flat above 11 Downing Street.
The Electoral Commission sensationally announced that it was launching its own probe into the controversial £88,000 refit, declaring that there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.
Mr Johnson dodged questions on the issue in the Commons, insisting that he had paid all bills over the £30,000 provided annually by the taxpayer but failing to deny that Tory donor Lord Brownlow had initially covered the massive bill.
A visibly furious PM was branded “Major Sleaze” by Keir Starmer, who said he was running an administration “mired in sleaze, cronyism and scandal”.
Sir Keir also warned the PM that he will have to resign if it turns out that he lied to the Commons when he insisted, during fiery exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions, that he had never said he was ready to see “bodies pile up in their thousands” rather than order a third lockdown.
But there was little sign of the avalanche of sleaze stories turning voters against the PM, with a BMG poll for The Independent a week ahead of crucial elections seeing Conservatives extend their lead over Labour to four points, with 39 per cent compared to 35 for Starmer’s party.
And Mr Johnson himself enjoyed improved satisfaction ratings, with voters saying they prefer him as prime minister over the Labour leader by a margin of 40 to 24 per cent.
The prime minister sparked concerns that he will let erring ministers off with a slap on the wrist in future, telling the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) that he will end the “disproportionate” convention that breaches of the ministerial code automatically trigger resignation.
CSPL chair Lord Evans last week warned that Mr Johnson would “risk public trust” in the system if he failed to give the new adviser powers to launch inquiries on his own initiative. He signalled the committee’s displeasure at the PM ignoring their recommendation by saying they would “consider” whether the new arrangement would give the crossbench peer the transparency and independence he needs to do the job properly.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves was more blunt: “In our country, the police don’t require the permission of a thief to investigate a burglary.
“The prime minister can’t be judge and jury on his ministers’ – or indeed his own – behaviour.
“The prime minister shouldn’t be able to block investigations into his ministers or himself when breaking the ministerial code.”
Former CPSL chair Alistair Graham voiced concern that the new terms of reference state that Lord Geidt’s discussions on potential inquiries into ministers will remain private.
“The key thing is whether an adviser who raises concerns which the PM refuses to have investigated is able and willing to make that public,” Sir Alistair told The Independent.
“If he is unable to do that, that does make him rather toothless.”
Given the PM’s “poor track record” on policing ministerial misdemeanours, Mr Johnson’s refusal to give up the power to block inquiries and to decide their outcome “raises a question mark over his commitment to high standards in government”, said the former standards watchdog.
Anti-corruption campaign Transparency International said it had identified 30 potential breaches of the ministerial code in the last year alone, many of which went uninvestigated.
Chief executive Daniel Bruce said the failure to give Lord Geidt more independence represented “a major missed opportunity to strengthen the rules for holding senior politicians to account”.
The appointment of the Queen’s former private secretary ended a five-month wait for a successor to Sir Alex Allan, who quit after Mr Johnson overruled his bullying finding on Priti Patel. Potential candidates for the role are understood to have bridled at the prospect of needing a green light from the PM before any action.
Lord Geidt is set to advise the PM on whether he should declare any donations, gifts or loans linked to the flat renovation in the ministerial register, which has been delayed for four months past its scheduled publication date in December.
It is believed the Conservative party secretly approved paying a £58,000 bill nine months ago, with Lord Brownlow later offering to cover the cost. ITV political editor Robert Peston reported that the PM discussed seeking help as long ago as February. However, Downing Street says that Mr Johnson has now personally paid in full.
The Electoral Commission, which has previously come under Tory threats of abolition or reform, has the power to issue a “disclosure notice” about its investigations, which could require the prime minister and the party to release documents.
If it fails to get the information it is seeking, an “inspection warrant” can be used to search premises – and individuals may also be required to attend interviews. And ultimately it has the power to issue fines of up to £20,000, and can also refer investigations to the police or prosecutors.
Downing Street said the prime minister had not yet been contacted by the watchdog to provide information, but would cooperate if approached.
His press secretary said: “This is a specific matter for the Conservative Party and they will provide all necessary information to assist the Commission.”