Scandals & Standards in Public Life

The era of sleaze and cash for questions

John Major’s government became tarnished with allegation and incidents of ‘sleaze’. One of these happened in 1994 when it became clear that some people within the Conservative party had agreed to put questions to Parliament in exchange for money. Two Conservative Members of Parliament, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, were accused by the Guardian Newspaper of taking money and accepting gifts (such as a stay in the Ritz) from Mohamed Al Fayed (then owner of Harrods), to make sure they asked certain questions in the House of Commons. It was said that Mr Ian Greer, a lobbyist, was their ‘middle-man’ shuttling the money and instructions between them.

When the allegations became public, Tim Smith admitted to the cash and immediately resigned. Neil Hamilton said he was innocent. Hamilton was forced to resign as a minister of the government as charges had been brought against him (standard for ministers) and then he lost his parliamentary seat in 1997 to an independent candidate Martin Bell (news journalist) who stood against him with an anti-sleaze message.

2013 Patrick Mercer stepped down and declared he would not be standing at the next election after he was caught allegedly agreeing to lobby on behalf of a fake company working for the military dictatorship in Fiji. 

The United Kingdom parliamentary expenses scandal was a major political scandal that emerged in 2009, concerning expenses claims made by members of the British Parliament in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords over the previous years.  The disclosure of widespread misuse of allowances and expenses permitted to Members of Parliament (MPs) aroused widespread anger among the UK public and resulted in a large number of resignations, sackings, de-selections and retirement announcements together with public apologies and the repayment of expenses. Several members or former members of both the House of Commons, and members of the House of Lords, were prosecuted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. 

A February 2008 Freedom of Information Act   request for the release of details of MPs' expenses claims was allowed by an Information Tribunal but challenged by the House of Commons Authorities on the grounds that it was "unlawfully intrusive". In May 2008 the High Court (England and Wales) ruled in favour of releasing the information. In April 2009 the House of Commons authorities announced that publication of expenses, with certain information deemed "sensitive" removed  would be made in July 2009. But before this could take place the expenses records and documentation were leaked to The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which began publishing details in daily instalments from 8 May 2009. 

These disclosures dominated the British media for weeks. On 18 June 2009 the details of all MPs' expenses and allowance claims approved from 2004 to 2008 were published on the official Parliament website with detail such as addresses, claims that were not approved for payment and correspondence between MPs and the parliamentary fees office removed, bringing further accusations of unnecessary secrecy and allegations that this might have prevented serious abuses from being disclosed.

Since most claims revolved around MPs' second homes in London, a panel was established to investigate all claims relating to the "second homes" allowance between 2004 and 2008. Headed by former civil servant Sir Thomas Legg, the panel published its findings on 12 October as MPs returned to Westminster following the summer recess. Each MP received a letter stating whether or not he or she would be required to repay any expenses claimed. Details of voluntary repayments by MPs amounting to almost £500,000 were also officially published.

It was announced on 5 February 2010 that criminal charges of false accounting were to be prosecuted against four parliamentarians, all later jailed. On 19 May charges were brought against two more, on 13 and 14 October 2010 two more faced legal proceedings. Three peers were suspended on 18 October 2010 due to their expenses claims.The revelations resulted in six MPs being convicted of criminal offences as a result of the investigation. The attempt of some of them to claim that parliamentary privilege protected them from prosecution was dismissed by the UK Supreme Court in R v Chaytor, which helpfully provided a clear judicial statement on the extent of parliamentary privilege.

There were two other positive outcomes. Firstly, the Brown government introduced and procured the passage of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. This established IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has for better or worse taken away responsibility for MPs’ expenses and salary away from the House itself. For example, the rules on employment by MPs of members of their family are now decided not by the House, but by IPSA. 

Secondly, Gordon Brown initiated the creation of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee: what became known as the ‘Wright Committee’. In November 2009 it produced a far-reaching report, much of which was implemented with bipartisan support over the course of the next year. For a detailed analysis, read Unit Director Meg Russell’s insightful article on the Wright Committee reforms.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, 2021

In 2021, The Sun newspaper published photographs of the secretary of state for health, Matt Hancock, surreptitiously kissing a colleague, Gina Coladangelo. Hancock’s flagrant disregard for Covid distancing regulations, despite being health secretary, caused an outcry and he was quickly forced to resign from the government.

Suella Braverman, home secretary, 2022

On 19 October 2022 Suella Braverman resigned as home secretary having used her personal email account to send an official document to a colleague. In her resignation letter she stated that, ‘The business of government relies upon people accepting responsibility for their mistakes.’ Interestingly, she then launched an attack on the prime minister, Liz Truss, expressing her ‘concerns about the direction of this government’. Truss resigned a day later and on 25 October Rishi Sunak re- appointed Braverman as home secretary.

Gavin Williamson, minister of state (minister without portfolio), 2022

The Conservative chief whip Wendy Morton complained that Gavin Williamson had sent her abusive texts over his not being invited to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Allegations that he had used bullying language against civil servants when he was defence secretary also surfaced. Facing a fast-developing media and opposition storm of criticism, Williamson resigned from Sunak’s government on 8 November.

Partygate' 2022

‘Partygate’ was a major political scandal. During the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020–21, meeting people outside your household was heavily restricted. Despite this, several ‘gatherings’ were held in the Downing Street building and garden as well as in other Conservative Party offices. Boris Johnson (prime minister at the time) initially dismissed these as ‘work events’. 

'The gatherings' were investigated by the police in January 2022 and 126 fixed-penalty notices were issued, including to Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. Senior civil servant Sue Gray was appointed by Johnson to carry out an investigation, which decided that there had been ‘serious failures’. More recently, the Privileges Committee examined whether Johnson lied to Parliament about the nature of the events. The committee, which includes several Conservative MPs, concluded that he had. The ‘Partygate’ scandal was a contributory factor to both the resignation of Johnson as prime minister and, more recently, as an MP. 

The first reporting of ‘Partygate’ was in the Daily Mirror. This Labour-supporting tabloid broke the story in 2021 and has covered it intensively since, regularly on its front page. The coverage clearly had an impact. For example, it led Keir Starmer to ask questions at PMQs in December 2021. In contrast, other tabloids such as The Sun (usually Conservative Party-supporting), were much less interested. This shows that newspapers can still have an influence on UK politics, despite their declining readership. Arguably, the Mirror made a significant contribution to the downfall of a prime minister. An alternative view could be that as readers of the Mirror tend to vote Labour anyway, the newspaper was just reflecting existing attitudes.

 Because  ‘Partygate’ contributed to the Conservative loss of the 2021 North Shropshire by-election  it is evidence for the impact of government competency on voting behaviour. (along with the resignation of Owen Paterson MP) and the Conservative Party’s poor showing in the 2022 and 2023 local elections. Many voters felt that the government was behaving in an arrogant fashion, believing that the law did not apply to them during a time of huge sacrifice and hardship. This shows the importance of the concept of governing competency as an influence on voting behaviour – making a judgement on the present government in order to decide how to vote. ‘Partygate’ has definitely had, and continues to have, an impact on those crucial ‘floating voters’ who often decide electoral outcomes.

This scandal can be used as evidence for  significance of select committees ‘Partygate’ shows the strength and independence of select committees as a tool to hold the government to account. The Privileges Committee investigated whether Johnson had misled Parliament over the allegations. The committee was able to call for ‘persons, papers and records’ and it also had the power to compel attendance from MPs – Johnson appeared before it in March 2023. The Privileges Committee is cross-party, with a majority of Conservative MPs and chaired by Labour MP Harriet Harman. Despite this majority, it showed its independence from party politics. The report, published in June 2023, stated that if Johnson had not already resigned as an MP, he would have been suspended for 90 days. 

There is arguably a participation crisis in UK politics, with declining numbers joining political parties and often low turnout at election time. Public opinion is negative towards many politicians: they are often seen as incompetent liars who cannot be trusted. ‘Partygate’ suggests that this view is accurate, which is damaging for democracy. If we do not have faith in our leaders, this can lead some to reject democracy altogether, or to stop voting. It may also discourage talented individuals from seeing politics as a career path. 

‘Partygate’ shows that party leaders can go from being electoral assets to being a liability. Leaders are central to the success or failure of a political party. Like Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson was initially seen as someone who could appeal to voters who would not have usually voted Tory. His ‘get Brexit done’ approach helped the Conservatives to a majority in 2019. However, after ‘Partygate’ he became a liability, damaging the party image. 

‘Partygate’ proves how the prime minister’s powers can fluctuate. External events such as the Covid pandemic can have a huge impact on their role. It also suggests that the cabinet cannot be seen as weak: if they lose faith in the prime minister, they can and will remove them. There were more than 50 resignations in 48 hours, including from cabinet members such as Rishi Sunak, before Johnson left office in July 2022. 

An investigation by Parliament's behaviour watchdog, the Independent Expert Panel, found Mr. Bone broke sexual misconduct rules by indecently exposing himself to a staff member during an overseas trip.

It also upheld five allegations of bullying, including verbally belittling, physically striking, and throwing things at the staff member. A recall petition resulted in a by-election that was won by the Labour candidate Gen Kitchen.  

However, the local Conservative party chose Peter Bone's partner as the candidate in the by-election- she had previously been employed by Mr Bone as a parliamentary 'assistant'. 

Recall of MPs Act 2015 

Michelle Mone scandal

The need for PPE - Personal Protection Equipment was an opportunity for criminals to defraud the government

The Conservative peer Michelle Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, denied for years that they were involved in PPE Medpro, a company that secured more than £200m in government contracts to supply face masks and surgical gowns during the Covid pandemic. The Guardian revealed that leaked documents produced by HSBC bank indicated that Barrowman was paid at least £65m from PPE Medpro’s profits. The documents indicated that Barrowman then transferred £29m to an offshore trust, the Keristal Trust, of which Mone and her three adult children were the beneficiaries.  They are subject to a long-running National Crime Agency investigation, facing allegations of fraud and bribery. In an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday, Mone admitted that she lied to the press when she repeatedly denied involvement in the company via her lawyers. 

The campaign group Transparency International UK identified 73 “questionable contracts” worth more than £3.7bn (€4.3bn; $5.1bn) in total that warranted further investigation. Most of these (65), worth £2.9bn, were for personal protective equipment.