Francis Dingwall is a partner at regulatory and insurance law firm Legal Risk LLP. Below, he tells of his personal experience of lockdown tragedy and slams the U.K. prime minister for his decision to attend a party during the 2020.
My MP, a Conservative, has reacted to the fixed penalty notice against Boris Johnson by tweeting that whilst he understands the anger felt, “the Prime Minister has apologised, accepted the decision of the police and implemented the changes promised.” He goes on to say: “Now, as he leads the West’s response to Putin’s evil invasion of Ukraine, it is critical that this is our focus: both he and the Chancellor have my full support.”
At about the time of the party for which the fine has been given, my mother – then almost 97 – was admitted to hospital with an infection. I was not allowed to accompany her to the hospital, or to visit her, or to collect her. I tried to speak to her on the phone, but she was too confused to talk.
The reason she was not allowed that basic human support from me as her son was that Mr Johnson’s government had made draconian rules preventing it. We now know that at about the same time, Mr Johnson was ignoring the very rules he had made, even though he appeared on TV day after day telling us how important it was to follow them. That was hypocritical, to say the least. As the business management books say, “The tone comes from the top”, and his standards are likely to trickle down into society.
As lawyers, we are conscious of the importance of the rule of law (by which I mean the principle that everyone is equal under the law, the law applies to rule-makers as well as the rest of us). How can the government expect people to respect the next law Mr Johnson makes that they do not like? Even if they obey it, cynicism will become ingrained. They will say “It is one rule for us, and one rule for them”, and that will gradually eat away at the fabric of society.
It is an exaggeration of Mr Johnson’s role in the war to say that “he leads the West’s response to Putin’s evil invasion of Ukraine”. To the extent that the U.K. government is supporting Ukraine (failing, incidentally, to take its fair share of refugees) he is not indispensable. At a time of international emergency, it is all the more important for this country to have a leader who has integrity. Without the rule of law, and with a hypocrite as its leader, this country will have increasingly more in common with Putin’s Russia than with Ukraine.
Perhaps the most crucial issue is whether Mr Johnson breached the Ministerial Code, because that is the nearest there is to a constitutional check on him. General Principle 1 is:
1.1 Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.
Rule 1.3(c) provides that “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”. It is well documented what Mr Johnson said to Parliament. As Theresa May said:
“… either my right honourable friend had not read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant and others around him, or they didn’t think the rules applied to Number 10. Which was it?”
It is in the hands of the country’s MPs to restore integrity to government. Robert Peston wrote in The Spectator on Tuesday:
“If Tory MPs unthinkingly keep him in office without a proper and public assessment of how Parliament was misled, and if they blithely ignore the Ministerial Code, then the charge will stick that this or any party with a big majority is simply an elected dictatorship, and the constitution means little or nothing. This is not just a slippery slope. It is the bottom of the slope”.
In any other organisation a leader would be sacked in these circumstances, if he did not resign. The same applies to Mr Sunak. What a poor reflection on our MPs if the only exceptions are the two most important positions of leadership in the U.K. It is in their hands whether the U.K.’s great tradition of democracy and rule of law is undone, and they will be judged on what they do.