University of Birmingham: Standards in Public Life in the Conservative Leadership Race

In 1994, having found his government engulfed by scandals and sleaze, Prime Minister John Major established the Committee on Standards in Public Life, with the remit of advising the Prime Minister on ‘ethical standards’. The foundations of the Committee’s work are its Seven Principles of Public Life, referred to as the Nolan principles. These principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership—have become the gold standard for the conduct of public office holders in Britain.

Reading the above might give one déjà vu as, once again, a Conservative government is embroiled in scandals and sleaze. It has been argued that the Johnson government has significantly diverged from the Nolan principles, with the recent “Pincher affair” serving as the proverbial ‘last straw’, triggering Johnson’s downfall.

As such, as the contest to decide a new Conservative leader has gotten underway, candidates have sought to emphasise their adherence to the Nolan principles in order to extricate themselves from the sleaze. In his resignation letter, leadership hopeful Sajid Javid stressed that people ‘rightly expect integrity from their Government’, and current frontrunner in the contest Rishi Sunak argued that he resigned because ‘standards are worth fighting for’. Reasserting the Nolan principles will likely also be a key challenge after the election is over, with polling showing that ‘almost half (49%) of all 2019 Conservative voters do not believe the Government acts with either integrity or honesty’. Thus, while policy issues, especially those of importance to Conservative members (like taxation) will likely be of central importance within the leadership contest, the Nolan principles will surely play a role too, and being seen to reassert these principles will be key to repairing the government’s damaged reputation going forwards.

At present, however, Conservative leadership hopefuls have only rhetorically asserted their own adherence to the Nolan principles, eliding the crucial issue of checks and balances. Indeed, despite some ‘adaptation and accommodation’, the British constitution represents a ‘power hoarding model’, whereby the executive is only subject to limited formal accountability and restraint. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has highlighted that regulation of standards reflects this constitutional set up, with standards currently existing only as ‘conventions and norms, rather than formal rules’, lacking a ‘rigorous compliance function’, and noting ‘that regulatory bodies often have limited or constrained independence’.

As well as this, it is important to note that not only was the Johnson government marked by repeated scandals and standards breaches, it also engaged in executive centralisation, and democratic backsliding, whereby the external checks and balances on standards and government conduct that do exist were weakened or attacked. Examples of these moves have been mapped out by LSE’s Constitution Unit, and include the avoidance of legislative scrutiny through heavy use of statutory instruments and expedited primary legislation, attempts to reduce judicial scrutiny in certain areas, restrictions on public scrutiny including curbing the right to protest and plans to defang public service journalism, and moves that ‘harm election integrity’ such as plans to reduce the independence of the Electoral Commission.

As such, whilst in the wake of the Johnson government a renewed commitment to the Nolan principles from those vying to lead the government is welcome, prospective Prime Ministers should also be evaluated on whether they plan to concretely strengthen the regulation and enforcement of these principles, and whether they are committed to enhancing external scrutiny of government in a range of areas across British politics. Without these commitments, rhetorical invocation of the Nolan principles represents little more than the payment of lip service, leaving open the possibility that backsliding and centralisation will continue.

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