OPINION - Dominic Raab bullying allegations show why Rishi Sunak needs an independent ethics adviser

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

It’s like that scene from an American political drama, where the president is incapacitated and the viewer is casually reminded that, for complicated plot reasons, there is no sitting vice president.

Except this is Britain, the prime minister is alive, the deputy prime minister is a made-up title conferring zero constitutional power and the missing person is the independent adviser on ministers’ interests.

When Rishi Sunak came to office, he promised his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” This hostage to fortune included a commitment to name a new ethics adviser, following the resignation of Lord Geidt in June 2021 (a whole five months after the resignation of his predecessor, Sir Alex Allen).

The absence of such an adviser reared its head again today, following allegations of bullying made against Dominic Raab. The deputy prime minister and justice secretary, who presumably wished he wasn’t standing in at PMQs today, has written to Sunak to “request an independent investigation” into the complaints, stating that he would cooperate fully with the probe.

In the absence of an independent adviser, the prime minister said he would appoint someone else to lead the inquiry. The findings are expected to be published, though Number 10 has not confirmed what would happen if new allegations are made in the interim.

Sunak’s promise to restore integrity has been challenged a number of times in his fledgling premiership. First, on questions surrounding the reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary, who resigned from the Truss government days earlier after breaching the ministerial code. Next came the allegations of bullying and subsequent resignation of former chief whip Sir Gavin Williamson. (Earlier this year I wrote about Westminster’s culture of bullying.)

It would be helpful for Sunak if he appointed an ethics adviser. The role is somewhat of a misnomer. The adviser does not exist to hold the prime minister’s feet to the fire. Rather, as Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government explains, they are there to “keep ministers in line” and “allow prime ministers to distance themselves from the investigative and judgement process”.

As such, prime ministers can look like they’re taking action by saying ‘an investigation is underway’ without necessarily taking action. Therefore, it is very much in Sunak’s interest to hire one forthwith.

Elsewhere in the paper, members of the RMT have voted to continue taking industrial action as part of the long-running dispute over jobs, pay and conditions. The decision means union members will be able to take strike action for potentially a further six-month period.

In the comment pages, Defence Editor Robert Fox says yesterday’s incident in Poland underlined at a stroke why the Ukraine war is no local feud between Kyiv and Moscow, but is of ever-deepening global significance.

Transport Editor Ross Lydall says the latest data shows cycling in the capital still isn’t safe enough. While Alexandra Jones recalls how during the last recession, she was the intern who stole loo roll from Tatler — but now realises she was the lucky one.

And finally, chaos and outrage at Soho House, as members miss out on a surprise Kendrick Lamar gig. Just think of the strongly-worded emails being drafted.

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