Unaccountability: a Retrospective of the Conservative Government

(Photo: Mac Brennan)

By Mac Brennan – Contributor

In 4 years, there have been 3 prime ministers, 61 resignations, 13 House suspensions, and 10 MPs who have committed various acts of sexual harassment or assault. These numbers can seem coincidental; especially since the majority of resignations came as an organised protest encouraging Boris Johnson to resign. However, the mass resignations are a part of a greater story demonstrating the extremes MPs must take for a prime minister to be made accountable for his actions. The culture within Parliament has been widely documented as “sleazy”, but sleaze is a consequence of nurturing unaccountability. Boris Johnson set that precedent. Sunak affirmed this view in the wake of the Zahawi tax scandal, vowing to “restore integrity and accountability”, referring to it as lost during Johnson’s premiership. This article will view the last four years and explain how the Johnson government manifested this culture and those consequences. 

Besides handling numerous international crises, Boris Johnson’s premiership consisted of allegations of bribery, nepotism, and minor corruption. One of these examples include the appointment of Richard Sharp as the BBC chair after he loaned Johnson £800,000. Sharp was the financial manager for Johnson’s personal affairs, and that relationship alone made his appointment controversial. The loan was construed as a possible bribe in the early days of its discovery to the media. The standards committee warned Johnson of this reaction but effectively chalked up the load as “bad timing”. Johnson also appointed the son of a Russian oligarch, Evgeny Lebedev, to the House of Lords. The appointment was seen as a security risk but no official action was taken to prevent the peerage. The largest consequence Johnson faced was a confiscation of a gift basket from the Sultan of Brunei. The gift basket was considered a bribe under the Ministerial Code for corruption, and confiscation prevents official penalization. These instances alone portray Johnson as someone who disregarded Parliamentary standards in self-interest. The Standards Committee repeatedly warned Johnson of the unethical nature but he did it anyway. There is no doubt that the incidents kept happening because of a lack of punishment even when there was a precedent to do so. 

Another example was a case of five conservative MPs trying to influence the case of Charlie Elphicke in 2021. Mr. Elphicke was charged and found guilty of sexual assault on members of staff. The main conspirator was his wife, Natalie Elphicke, current MP for Dover. The official code of conduct breaches were “improper influence of judicial proceedings” and “improper use of House stationary”. The Standards Committee report describes that the MPs tried to bar certain testimony from becoming public, insert unofficial character-witness statements for Mr. Elphicke, and made derogatory remarks on the presiding judge. Only three MPs met consequences, Ms. Elphicke included, each given a 1 day suspension. Attempting to influence a trial is a hallmark of government corruption in most countries. The lack of consequence for objectively corrupt behaviour is significant characterise the Johnson government as unaccountable. All evidence suggests this is an isolated incident but this does not mean it will not happen again. 

Partygate and the Chris Pincher appointment were Johnson’s downfall, leading to 53 conservative MPs resigning. MPs highlighted that these scandals lead to the extreme action due to Johnson’s stubborn refusal to resign, and some included a cumulative disdain for past incidents. The fact that 53 resignations were necessary to hold him accountable is the result of a cultivated culture of tolerance and apathy. The standards committee’s previous inaction adds to the narrative that Johnson did not immediately resign because he thought he could get away with appointing a known assaulter as a party whip. Unaccountability led to his political decay. 

Liz Truss’ tenure came to an end as her and Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini budget” expedited and exacerbated a cost-of-living crisis. The other crisis she failed to manage was a small wave of party suspensions and unparliamentary behaviour. In a comment to The Guardian amidst the Conor Burns scandal of October last year, Labour MP and standards committee chair Chris Bryant said, “So far in this parliament, 16 MPs have been suspended from the House or have resigned their seats for various misdemeanours. At least five more are under investigation. This is completely unprecedented. No parliament has ever seen this before.” (Mason, 2022)

Bryant’s reaction is from a historic understanding that House suspensions are a serious offence, meant to be quite rare. From 2000 to 2018 there were 14 suspensions; approximately 1 suspension every 16 months. Since 2019, Parliament faces approximately 1 suspension every 4 months. Bryant affirms that a lack of accountability in the MP system led to the influx of scandals, and specifically points to the Johnson government as the catalyst for the trend. 

Below is a table that shows the number of MPs to breach various categories of the Ministerial Codes of Conduct since the 2019 General Election. It represents MPs who have been suspended from the House of Commons or their party, and those who have resigned or terminated. 

Number of Members of Parliament to Breach Various Categories of the Ministerial Codes of Conduct since the 2019 General Election* 

Party of Suspended MPsSexual MisconductBullying and HarassmentAbuse of PowerConflicts of InterestGeneral Breach of CodeTotal number of MPs**
Conservative 21
Labour 5
Other 5

*Only includes official breaches of the Ministerial Codes of Conduct

**MPs with multiple types of offences are represented in all related columns but counted once in the “Total” column 

This table does not include the number of Conservative Party MPs to receive fixed penalty notices (FPNs) in relation to Partygate. There were 83 individuals given FPNs, including Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. The Majority of FPNs were given to staffers, and non-MP conservative party members. What remains is a record of 31 known MPs known to have broken the law. 

Some of the more infamous scandals include Owen Paterson taking money from lobbyists to discuss their interests on the House floor; Gavin Willliamson and Dominic Raab bullying staff; and Nadhim Zahawi neglecting to declare an HMRC investigation into his tax record.

Sexual misconduct was the most common code breach including David Warburton, Chris Pincher, Imran Ahmad Khan, Rob Roberts, Mike Hill, Chris Matheson, and Patrick Grady all proven to have sexually harassed individuals. Pincher and Khan were found to have sexually assaulted people, Khan was jailed for rape of a 15 year old boy. Neil Parish watched pornography while sitting in the House of Commons. 

There are no preventative measures for any of the acts. In the same Guardian article mentioned previously, Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect Union, argued that staff are harmed to this extent because there are no procedures or measures to prevent this behaviour. Many MPs take it upon themselves to resign, but they would not have resigned if they had not been exposed (Mason, 2022). 

The consequences of ill-defined measures for accountability can lead to discrepancies when doling out sentences. An example of this is the difference in time between Patrick Grady’s and Rob Roberts’ House suspensions after having been found to sexually harass staff. Grady had 8 counts levelled against him; 3 for sexual misconduct and 5 for bullying/harassment. He was sentenced to 2 days of suspension. Rob Roberts received 6 weeks for a similar kind of harassment as Grady but harassed a man instead of a woman. It is reasonable to assume that homophobia leads to an increased suspension. Especially since Roberts was proven to have non-consensual sexually-charged text conversations with a female employee, and faced no repercussions. To be clear, Roberts’ actions towards his male employee were wrong, but so were the actions of his first offence and Grady’s. If there were concrete guidelines about the level of punishment that can be given for misconduct, that would prevent discriminatory sentencing and the misconduct altogether. It is not a stretch to infer that many MPs continue to abuse their position because the consequences can be very minimal. 

Zahawi neglecting to state an HMRC investigation while sitting as party chair is on-par with appointing a personal banker as the chair of a national organisation. Both situations are severe levels of misconduct because it undermines the measures that allow for accountability. Sunak chose to focus on “restoring integrity and accountability” because he understands this. He also understands that unaccountability is the underlying cause for the waves of reported misconduct. Hopefully, the public demise of Zahawi’s political career is a sign that the culture of accountability will be addressed. 

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