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Johnson’s ‘clear breach’ of the rules shows urgent need for reform – watchdog

27 Jun 2023 3 minute read
Boris Johnson Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Boris Johnson’s “clear and unambiguous breach” of the rules over his Daily Mail column shows the urgent need to reform the “good chaps” approach to post-ministerial jobs, the UK Government has been warned.

Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) chairman Lord Eric Pickles wrote to deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden with his concerns on Tuesday.

The Conservative peer said the former prime minister’s case is a “further illustration of how out of date” the rules are, saying there must be sanctions for breaches.

The Ministerial Code requires those who have left the UK Government in the last two years to apply for advice on taking up a new appointment or role.

But the watchdog said Mr Johnson only submitted his Acoba application 30 minutes before his new job was announced in a pre-recorded video – despite being “familiar” with the rules.

“This is a clear and unambiguous breach of the Government’s rules and requirements of the Ministerial Code,” Lord Pickles wrote.

“Mr Johnson’s case is a further illustration of how out of date the Government’s business rules are.

“They were designed to offer guidance when ‘good chaps’ could be relied on to observe the letter and the spirit of the rules.

“If it ever existed, that time has long passed and the contemporary world has outgrown the rules.”


Lord Pickles said there is a risk of “further scandal” if ministers do not introduce a “modern framework” for dealing with appointments, including sanctions for non-compliance.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We are committed to improving the business appointment rules, but it is important to get this right.

“We are continuing to consider methods to strengthen the system and encourage compliance with the rules.”

The department is understood to be considering how to respond to Acoba over its findings on Mr Johnson.

The watchdog, frequently accused of being “toothless” because it cannot impose sanctions, made clear it is for Mr Dowden to decide on a punishment.

“I suggest that you take into consideration the low risk nature of the appointment itself, and the need to reform the system to deal with roles in proportion to the risks posed,” Lord Pickles wrote.

The rules are in place to avoid suspicion that an appointment might be a reward for past favours and to mitigate a risk that a minister could exploit privileged access to Government contacts.

Acoba quickly accused Mr Johnson of a “clear” breach of ministerial rules when news of his appointment as a regular columnist for the paper was announced on June 16.

Correspondence published by the watchdog on Tuesday showed how Mr Johnson’s office put in the last-minute request for advice after his new role had been cryptically trailed on the Mail’s front page.

Shelley Williams-Walker, who followed Mr Johnson out of No 10 and into his private office before being made a dame in his resignation honours, emailed in the request at 12.31pm.

Half-an-hour later a pre-recorded video was tweeted by the Mail showing Mr Johnson confirming his appointment.

A response from Mr Johnson to a request for clarity from Acoba was sent less than 20 minutes before the 5pm deadline the committee set.

“I have not signed any contract or been paid,” the former MP argued.

“If you have any objection to my signing a contract in the next few weeks perhaps you could let me know.”

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