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Calls to urgently implement a sleaze watchdog’s recommendations in a bid to improve standards at Westminster have been supported by MPs.
Labour sought to keep the pressure on Boris Johnson after the partygate scandal and confidence vote by tabling a House of Commons motion on standards in public life.
This asked MPs to endorse recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which included giving the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser Lord Geidt the power to “initiate investigations into breaches of the ministerial code”.
Mr Johnson previously said he was putting in place an “enhanced process” for Lord Geidt to initiate his own investigations into possible breaches, but that he would still need the Prime Minister’s consent before proceeding.
Labour’s motion was approved by 215 votes to zero, majority 215, after Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis advised Conservative MPs to abstain.
The motion is non-binding and does not compel the Government to act.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Mr Johnson of undermining British values by “downgrading” standards expected in public life.
She told the Commons: “There is nothing decent about the way that he has acted. And what example does he set?
“This Prime Minister’s example of leadership: illegally proroguing parliament, breeding a Downing Street culture where his staff felt able to break lockdown rules including himself, putting the very standards that underpin our democracy to the shredder.”
Ms Rayner said Labour, if elected, would implement a plan to “clean up politics” and “stamp out the corruption that has been rife under this Prime Minister”.
Mr Ellis initially appeared to indicate Government support for the motion when he opened his response by saying: “I make no hesitation in supporting the motion on the order paper today – the Government fully recognises the importance of the ministerial code and its role in maintaining standards in public life, that is not questioned.”
But he later said the Government would abstain, adding: “We do not support the suggestion that the recommendations of one particular report should be adopted without due consideration as a single block.”
He defended the Prime Minister’s recent update to the ministerial code, claiming: “It is frankly fake news to say, as some have, that it has been weakened. It is the exact opposite, it has been strengthened.”
Labour’s Dame Margaret Beckett, a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, questioned the degree of freedom available to the independent adviser on ministerial interests, given “everything still depends, fundamentally, on the decision of the prime minister of the day”.
Mr Ellis replied: “As it should be, constitutionally, but the reality is – I think she’ll confirm – that it does strengthen the position, it certainly does not weaken it.”
He later suggested appointing an independent arbiter of the ministerial code would “usurp” power from the Prime Minister.
Conservative former minister John Penrose said there had been a “material breach” of the ministerial code as Mr Johnson had failed to publicly address “serious failings of leadership” highlighted in Sue Gray’s report on lockdown-busting parties.
Mr Penrose, intervening on Mr Ellis, acknowledged the recent letter from the Prime Minister to Lord Geidt went through in detail the question of the fixed penalty notice issued in connection with a lockdown birthday celebration.
But Mr Penrose added: “The thing which it does not cover – and which, in my view, I’m afraid, is a very serious omission – is the further charge in the Sue Gray report that there have been serious failings of leadership at the top of No 10 and the Cabinet Office, both him and civil service leadership.
“And because it is about leadership, that is one of the fundamental seven Nolan principles of integrity in public life – does that not also both involve a serious, a material breach of one of the fundamental underpinnings of the ministerial code, and is it also not a problem that he has managed to ignore that entire section of the report, gloss over it and fail to address it and fail to address it publicly?”
Mr Ellis replied: “I respectfully disagree with (Mr Penrose) for the simple reason that there is the issue of inadvertence – that is a relevant factor.”