An ally of Boris Johnson has said it is “misinformation” for opposition MPs to accuse him of watering down ministerial code rules with his controversial revisions.
In changes branded “sinister” by Labour, the UK Government announced last week that ministers will not automatically lose their jobs if they breach the ministerial code, as has traditionally been the case.
The update gives the Prime Minister the option of ordering a lesser sanction, such as “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period”, for rule-breaking deemed to be “minor”.
Labour has promised to push for a vote on the move when Parliament returns from its break for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in a bid to whip up Conservative dissent.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, however, argued the Prime Minister, in issuing the changes, was following recommendations made by an independent standards body and his own ethics adviser, Lord Geidt.
However, Labour said Mr Johnson had cherry-picked which recommendations to follow, having refused to accept advice on writing the ministerial code into legislation and failing to grant stronger powers requested by Lord Geidt to commission his own probes.
Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis denied that the Tory Party leader was attempting to “water down standards” when opposition criticisms were put to him on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme.
He said: “Let’s remember, there has been a bit of misinformation about this.
“This comes from the recommendations from the commission (Committee on Standards in Public Life) and some of it from Lord Geidt around this idea of there being a graduated penalty process.
“People still have to resign if they mislead the House or something serious but there was a request from others, including Lord Geidt and the commission, that we do have this kind of graduated approach.
“So it means (in the past) if there was a minor infraction that in theory was too minor to resign (over), then there was no penalty.
“There are now a series of penalties for different infractions if anybody commits an infraction in the first place.”
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour Party chairwoman, said Mr Johnson was attempting to weaken the rules by which his own conduct is judged.
The ministerial code update came only days after publication of the Sue Gray report which found that the Prime Minister attended a number of coronavirus lockdown leaving dos and gatherings in Downing Street.
At some of the events, the senior civil servant discovered he gave speeches and drank alcohol despite having ordered the country to obey social distancing rules in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.
Ms Dodds told Sky News: “His response as we have seen over the last couple of days has been to try and actually change the rules that he will then be judged by because he’s seeking to water down the ministerial code.”
Mr Johnson has allowed senior ministers to keep their jobs despite infringements of the code that they are expected to abide by.
The Home Secretary remained in post despite being found to have bullied Home Office staff.
The Prime Minister stood by Priti Patel in a move that saw Lord Geidt’s predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, resign in November 2020.
Former health secretary Matt Hancock, who later quit as details of his alleged lockdown affair emerged, was also pardoned after being found to have made a “technical” breach of the rules in failing to declare he owned shares in a company run by his sister which was granted an NHS contract.
Labour said that as well as updating the specific terms of the code, the Prime Minister had removed “all references to integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest” in the new foreword.