In a New Statesman podcast released today, I discussed ethics in Westminster with writer Armando Iannucci, MP Anum Qaisar and journalist Ailbhe Rea. It is clearly time for a debate about our expectations of politicians.
How did the UK get itself into a situation where the Prime Minister is still in post although he lied to parliament. Apparently when Hemingway was asked how he went bankrupt, he replied: “Gradually, then suddenly.” That does seem to be the way of important historical shifts. The erosion of politicians’ standards in behaviour, and the tolerance of norm breaking in the Westminster Parliament, has reached a critical point. If Boris Johnson survives partygate as PM, then this may be seen as the moment when ethical bankruptcy became official.
The maintenance of ethical standards in Westminster is regularly tested by scandals. Finding out what is going on can be complicated by the competitive nature of democratic politics. MPs fling allegations at each other and journalists close to them collude, while other journalists busy themselves trying to investigate the truth. The closer they are to Westminster, the more some journalists get involved in politics themselves; and the further they are from everyday complexities of politics, the bigger the risk that they might misunderstand. The expenses scandal involved all kinds of moral complexity – as Andrew Walker and I tried to explain in An Extraordinary Scandal – including battles over transparency. This was all reduced to tales of greed that were fair in relation to a few MPs, but unfairly applied to others. One failure of Parliament was not to catch up with changes in their own rules, including the Freedom of Information Act, which they thought they could exempt themselves from. Full transparency of politics is undesirable because the compromises that need to be made are so easily distorted and misrepresented in the public realm. But it is right that parliament is scrutinised and held to the highest standards.
Just as previous crises had led to the establishment of the Nolan Committee and principles, the UK Parliament benefitted from huge efforts by MPs to clean up their act after the expenses scandal. I observed them in 2011-13 during a period when expenses become entirely public, backbenchers gained power, and a coalition government tried to work co-operatively to recover parliament’s reputation. However, austerity during that period was savage. Attention was diverted from the sacrifices demanded by the public by two events: Brexit and Covid. Since Boris Johnson managed to assume the post of PM, in what felt like a coup, we have seen a systemic abandonment of standards. No PM has broken the law before while in office, and none have survived lying to Parliament, but the circumstances make Johnson’s disregard for Covid rules particularly hard to stomach. While the nation was kept from consoling dying relatives, or living alone in isolation while ill, PM Johnson broke the law by enjoying his birthday party.
The narratives created in response are breath-taking. He says he did not realise he might be breaking the law. His apologies contain regret but perhaps mostly for the threat to his position. He appears to feel entitled to special treatment. His allies say that it was the fault of officials. Or that he should be judged in the round; after all the vaccine programme went well and his stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is uniquely brave. Such considerations do not enter into a defence in a court of law but are being exploited in the court of public opinion.
There is an alarming possibility that Johnson gets a buzz from the idea that he is so exceptional that he can get away with almost anything. Politics seems to be turning into entertainment as much as government and people want a good story more than high standards. How dangerous is this? In my view, preserving standards within democracy eventually is a matter of life and death. So, if we want to protect not only our democracy, which still works far better than people realise, but also our people, then we need to restore high moral expectations of our leaders.