Richard Thomson – 2022 Speech on Standards in Public Life

The speech made by Richard Thomson, the SNP MP for Gordon, in the House of Commons on 7 June 2022.

I would like to begin by echoing the comments made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and saying how disappointing I find it that there are not more contributors from the Government Benches. Indeed, the Government Benches resemble more the decks on the Marie Celeste than a Parliament on a day when we are debating something of such import, notwithstanding the excellent contributions, in their own way, made by the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger).

I also enjoyed very much the contribution made by the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). Her scepticism towards a written constitution disappointed me but did not surprise me. There are many big ticket constitutional items that this place could benefit from, such as seeing us elected here under a proportional voting system, and having a written constitution, a bill of rights and an independent constitutional court beyond the scope of ministerial interference. Those are just the standard trappings of modern liberal democracies, but I have long since given up any hope of them coming into effect in this place, which is one of the reasons why I think it would be better for Scotland, where I believe a consensus for such measures exists, to make a fresh start.

Even with those big ticket reforms, we still need codes, standards, norms and conventions for how individuals and groups operate within that framework. In her opening remarks, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) referenced Professor Peter Hennessy and his “good chap” theory of government. In putting that forward, he emphasised the courtesies, conventions and orthodoxies that are taken for granted and which mean that the situation Lord Hailsham described many years ago—of government being like an elected dictatorship—never actually comes to pass, and that the individual excesses of Ministers, Prime Ministers or over-mighty and overreaching Executives can be curbed and corrected, rather than having anyone or anything slithering in between the gaps that exist and exhausting all reserves of trust and good will when they are no longer deserving of either.

In those spaces, standards matter; any perception to the contrary that is allowed to build up damages politics in general and damages us all. It diminishes the legitimacy of the decisions we take and deters good people from getting involved in public life. Most damaging of all, it pushes people away from having the chance to express their views democratically by participating at the ballot box.

We have heard in several contributions so far the continuing reverberations of partygate. Certainly, in a debate on standards, that provides a target-rich environment. But even prior to that, there were no shortages of areas of concern. To pick an example, notoriously, when the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser found that the Home Secretary had breached the ministerial code governing Minister’s behaviour, the only consequence that flowed from that was that the Prime Minister’s adviser ended up having to resign while the Home Secretary remained in office. Although a court found that the Prime Minister had not misapplied the ministerial code—whatever people might think about it, legally it was a sound decision—it was a sound decision simply because of the nature of how the code works at the moment: the Prime Minister retains complete control over all references, including any references in the code relating to himself.

A standards system can operate only with as much integrity as those charged with implementing it have themselves. We have a Prime Minister who is not only the gatekeeper to that process, but also effectively the judge, the jury and, if need be, the executioner, and he remains so despite his manifest unsuitability, in my view, to carry out that role and despite the very clear recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life referenced in the motion before us today.

I accept that there has been a fresh iteration, as the Paymaster General, the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) says, of the ministerial code and how it applies. At a time when the public focus on standards has never been higher, it is very disappointing that the Prime Minister and the Government have once again decided to pick and choose what suits them and what does not. It is telling that the seven Nolan principles were removed from the introduction to the Government’s guidance, effectively disassociating the Prime Minister personally in word from that which he had already quite spectacularly disassociated himself in deed during his time in office.

If the problems are clear, so too are the solutions—or at least some of them. It was illustrated graphically in stark terms yesterday that the Prime Minister has lost a considerable amount of authority within his party, an authority he had already lost in the electorate at large a long time ago. I am bound to observe that in Scotland the Prime Minister can now rely on the support of only two of its 59 Members of Parliament—although we are a day on from yesterday and who knows what positions the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has contorted himself into since then? Sadly, the Prime Minister is not about to be run out of office in the next two hours, but whether it is in the next two days, two weeks, two months, two years, most assuredly the Prime Minister will be gone, meriting his own rather inglorious set of footnotes in history.

This issue, therefore, is about the standards framework we have going forward. We should not twist it or distort it to suit the present incumbent, but we should be mindful of examples of his own behaviour in order to make the code and its operation as watertight as it ever can be. I challenged the Paymaster General, when he was good enough to take my intervention, on whether the Government would implement all the recommendations, as he indicated when he said he was supportive of the principles. I have to say that I remain baffled about how the Government can support the principles of the motion while recommending that Members abstain and still saying that they will not support the implementation of all the measures in full.

In closing my remarks, I do not think there is anything that can be done to restore the reputation of this Prime Minister or the Administration he leads, but what is needed urgently is to rebuild trust by reaffirming immediately and without qualification the seven principles of public life—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—and by implementing, without repetition, deviation or hesitation, each and every one of the recommendations in the report, as the motion before us calls for.