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The rules failed to hold Boris Johnson to account. We need radical change

Government refusal to release ministers’ official pandemic diaries was latest in a litany of transparency failures

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
7 July 2022, 12.44pm

Boris Johnson has announced he will resign as Conservative Party leader

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Thomas Krych/Alamy Stock Photo/Geopix/PA Images / Composite by James Battershill

Boris Johnson deserves a place in British political history – not as the prime minister who ‘got Brexit done’, but as the premier who showed how threadbare the rules that are supposed to protect British democracy really are.

Johnson was the first prime minister to have broken the law while in office. He doled out seats in the House of Lords to his political donors, and criminalised protest and dissent.

Johnson’s reign ended when his Conservative colleagues decided that it was politically expedient for him to go. But the opaque, anti-democratic system that enabled him remains firmly in place.

Just yesterday, as the ravens were circling around Downing Street, openDemocracy revealed how EIGHTEEN government ministers had refused to release their official ministerial diaries.

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We had spent a year asking for information that should have been available to everyone: who Johnson and his ministers were meeting, and when, as the COVID pandemic raged in 2020.

Releasing this information is clearly in the public interest. Tens of thousands of people died in the pandemic, while billions of pounds’ worth of government contracts were handed out to companies connected to the Conservative Party. (They even called it the ‘VIP lane’, for crying out loud.)

But instead of being transparent, Boris Johnson’s government did exactly what it had done for the past three years: it prevaricated and evaded.

We filed seemingly endless FOI requests that were denied on the most obscure grounds. Refusing to hand over Johnson’s schedule, Number 10 said the diaries “would be of limited value”.

openDemocracy will continue to push for transparency. We have appeals lodged with the information commissioner to release ministers' diaries. (You can help support this work here.)

But the rot is already deep, whoever replaces Johnson.

Numerous departing Tory ministers this week cited the crisis in standards in their motivation for moving against the prime minister. In his resignation letter, Sajid Javid talked of the British people “rightly expect[ing] integrity from their government”.

But the former health secretary had no qualms before about supporting a government – and a prime minister – that has brought in an Elections Act that gives it control over the electoral regulator and forces voters to carry ID to exercise their franchise.

The same ministers who wrung their hands so publicly this week were far more reticent when Johnson tried to abolish parliament’s standards watchdog to protect the disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson.

No ministers followed Lord Geidt in resigning last month, even though Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser’s departure came after he was asked about a proposal to deliberately break the ministerial code over trade laws.

Maybe rule-breaking is only really serious if it comes after a succession of by-election defeats in Tory seats?

The saga of Lord Geidt is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the systems that are supposed to protect British democracy.

The PM’s nominally ‘independent’ adviser is unable to launch investigations without the prime minister’s own approval.

After Lord Geidt left, Johnson hinted that he wouldn’t be replaced. There are, after all, no rules forcing the prime minister to have an ethics adviser. (Some would say this was a problem given that Johnson had previously awarded public contracts to his lover, and been sanctioned by standards watchdogs for everything from signing a £275,000 contract as a Telegraph columnist three days after resigning as foreign secretary, to failing to declare property interests.)

Johnson’s legacy will live on. He packed the Lords with loyalists, who also just happened to be political donors. As openDemocracy revealed last year, for £3m Tory treasurers get a legislative seat for life. (They can even claim generous expenses, too.)

In Britain, political scandals are rarely followed by genuine reform. Nothing happened when Johnson asked a Tory donor to pay for the refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment (and lied about it).

David Cameron’s egregious lobbying for the disgraced banker Lex Greensill was permitted under the lobbying rules he had himself introduced. The Greensill scandal led to a slew of inquiries but – surprise, surprise – no substantive changes.

A common thread in all this is the government lying. When, in 2020, we revealed that the Cabinet Office was running a secretive Clearing House unit vetting Freedom of Information requests from journalists, the then minister Michael Gove dismissed our painstaking work as “ridiculous and tendentious”. A judge disagreed. We were vindicated in a subsequent parliamentary inquiry.

But we are still waiting for change. We could be waiting a long time.

This morning, less than an hour before Johnson’s vainglorious resignation speech, the government’s response to the Clearing House inquiry was finally published. Guess what? It rejected most of the recommendations of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to improve the transparency of its FOI handling.

There are things that can be done to change this broken system. A centrally-managed, transparent lobbying register would allow us all to see who is influencing who.

Political funding could be reformed to protect against foreign influence and to reduce the power of a handful of rich donors. Any system that allows companies that have turned almost no profit to donate large sums to politicians is clearly broken.

As Johnson showed so floridly, the Ministerial Code is not worth the paper it’s printed on. New rules are needed to constrain prime ministers’ power.

Johnson’s departure should be the impetus to fix Britain’s broken democracy. But given how complicit his colleagues have been for so long, I won’t be holding my breath.

Instead I, and my colleagues at openDemocracy, will be continuing to work to force transparency on a political class that seems determined to do everything in its power to avoid being held accountable for its actions. Please do consider supporting us.

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