Let me begin with what should be platitudinous. The presumption of innocence is a cherished legal principle in the United Kingdom. No one is guilty of a crime unless a court so decides after a fair hearing, and anyone accused of wrongdoing short of a crime is entitled to the protection of an analogous principle. Politicians must account to Parliament, and are answerable to the voters. Politicians must obey the law and comply with relevant codes of conduct.
I’ve lost count of the number of current investigations into alleged misconduct by Boris Johnson. The most important of them concerns who paid or lent what to whom and when for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. The work was justified in order to put right what Mr Johnson’s fiancée described as Theresa May’s “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” (My house is largely furbished by that store.) The Cabinet Secretary, the Electoral Commission, and the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests are all attempting, as the Watergate-inspired phrase has it, to follow the money. (Lord Geidt was appointed last week as the Independent Adviser. The post had been vacant for over four months since Sir Alex Allan resigned it when the Prime Minister rejected his finding that Priti Patel had breached the Ministerial Code by bullying her staff. The Prime Minister is the ultimate arbiter of that code. If Lord Geidt finds that Mr Johnson has broken it the latter would, contrary to the common-law principle, be judge in his own cause.)
All three inquiries must each necessarily take the time necessary to do their duty. But every week the House of Commons has an opportunity to interrogate Mr Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions. At PMQs on 28 April the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer QC, asked Mr Johnson forensically-precise questions about the financing of the changes that have been made to the flat. The replies, rather as with some students in exams, were an exercise in answering a question that had not been put. The only response that the Prime Minister gave, and continues to give, is that he has personally covered, or has paid, the cost of the refurbishments. As he well knows no one disputes that. But at PMQs the former Director of Public Prosecutions put four, multiple choice, options about the payments, at least one of which must be true. He received the same, irrelevant, reply.
Mr Johnson maintains that “this stuff”, as he is pleased to describe it, is of no interest to voters, who are overwhelmingly concerned by things like their wellbeing in the pandemic. That could be true, especially at local elections. Now, President Lyndon Johnson once dismissed a future President’s intellectual ability by saying that Gerald Ford “couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” We can all do such things at the same time, and we are all capable of considering our personal welfare and much else as well as wanting appropriate answers from the Prime Minister about his conduct.
Politics is a rough old trade. It needs regulation. Good governance, however, doesn’t depend solely on laws and codes of conduct. It relies on those involved having an ability to see what’s right from what’s wrong, and of recognising whether something is or isn’t appropriate. That said, I now think that Britain needs a new, overarching Ethics in Government Act. Thought should be given to whether the remit and powers of and between a number of bodies and people are appropriately arranged and are sufficient. They include the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, the Electoral Commission, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The status of what is now in codes such as the Ministerial Code should be considered, to see whether any parts of them ought to go into the new statute, as well as who should police the Act, and what their powers should be.
Voters may not care much about “this stuff.” They may think that it’s unimportant, that all politicians do these sorts of things, that this is Boris Johnson after all. But if no one continues to bang on about fundamental constitutional principles the risk is that those precepts will slowly, so slowly, lose their importance. And then where would we be?
Let me end by trying to help Mr Johnson and his successors. The British Prime Minister is more poorly paid than are broadly similar heads of government. That salary should be increased significantly. The state should be more generous in paying for the refurbishment of the private flats in Downing Street. And domestic help should be offered to every Prime Minister at the state’s expense: why should he or she have to waste time worrying about the provision of and payment for meals taken there, at which Government business is occasionally conducted? By his public unresponsiveness to pertinent questions, however, Mr Johnson has himself ensured that no such changes will happen any time soon.
Rodney Brazier is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law in the University of Manchester
(Suggested citation: R. Brazier, ‘Mr Johnson and His Flat’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (4th May 2021) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))