Boris Johnson is to avoid censure for breaking the rules on ex-ministers taking up new jobs despite the government accepting he committed a breach over his appointment as a Daily Mail columnist.
Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, told the post-government appointments watchdog on Thursday that it would be “disproportionate to undertake further action” other than acknowledging that there had been a breach.
Johnson committed a “clear breach” of rules by telling the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) that he was becoming a Daily Mail columnist only half an hour before the public announcement, the watchdog said in June.
The ministerial code states that ministers must ensure that no new appointments are announced or taken up before the committee has been able to provide its advice.
“The Cabinet Office accepts the committee’s assessment and notes the risk surrounding media appointments are limited and typically subject to the conditions that former ministers are already required to abide by following their departure from office,” Dowden wrote in a letter to Acoba last month that has now been published.
“I therefore also accept that it would disproportionate to undertake further action in these circumstances other than the public exchange of such correspondence (noting that there was a breach).”
The Mail unveiled Johnson in June and said his first column would appear at 5pm, only a day after a report found he had deliberately misled the Commons and had been part of a campaign to intimidate MPs who investigated him.
Eric Pickles, Acoba’s chair, wrote to Dowden that month to describe Johnson’s appointment as a “clear and unambiguous” breach of the government’s rules and requirements of the ministerial code.
“Mr Johnson is familiar with both. He set out the standards expected in the ministerial code whilst prime minister and has made previous applications under the rules, including a similar failure to follow the rules when he left ministerial office in 2018,” Lord Pickles said.
Pickles went on to say that the case was further illustration of how out of date the government’s business rules were.
“They were designed to offer guidance when ‘good chaps’ could be relied on to observe the letter and the spirit of the rules,” he said. “If it ever existed, that time has long passed and the contemporary world has outgrown the rules. This forces Acoba to spend time on low-risk applications at the expense of more complex and challenging cases. New areas of corruption are not monitored because they were not envisaged when the rules were drawn up.”
Acoba had long recommended a modern framework for considering business appointments, he added, and this should include sanctions for non-compliance and greater clarity about what is and is not acceptable to enable resources to be focused on complex cases.