The UK prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused by the opposition Labour party of “debasing the principles of public life” after the government published a revised outline of its ministerial code on Friday.
The updated policy, released by the Cabinet Office, said that ministers who are found to have breached the rules should not “automatically” be expected to resign.
The amendment drew criticism from the opposition benches including Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner who accused Johnson of “watering down” the rules to “save his own skin”. She added: “This prime minister is downgrading and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes.”
The move came as Johnson is set to face scrutiny by the House of Commons privileges committee, a cross-party group of MPs who will determine whether he lied to parliament in his account of the “partygate” scandal.
Nick Timothy, former adviser to Theresa May as prime minister, said: “If any Tory MPs are labouring under the impression that the PM might listen, learn or change, amending the ministerial code so he’s not expected to quit when he breaks it ought to clinch the argument.”
Johnson’s premiership has survived a difficult week after senior civil servant Sue Gray published her report into lockdown parties at Westminster, exposing a culture of lawbreaking and heavy drinking in Downing Street.
A handful of Conservative MPs have called for the prime minister’s resignation in light of revelations. Paul Holmes, a Tory MP, on Friday resigned as an aide to home secretary Priti Patel, saying he was “shocked and angered” by the findings. He criticised “the toxic culture that seemed to have permeated Number 10”.
With two perilous by-elections next month in the Conservative seats of Wakefield as well as Tiverton and Honiton — the first in the former Labour “red wall” stronghold, the second in the Tory “blue wall” — Johnson remains under political pressure.
The prime minister’s decision to sign off on a weakened ministerial code is a sign he is still prepared to challenge convention, say his critics, despite claiming he was “humbled” by the partygate affair.
The revised code stated that it was “disproportionate” to expect that rule breaches “should lead automatically to resignation or dismissal”.
“The sanction which the prime minister may decide to issue in a given case is for the prime minister to determine, but could include requiring some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period,” according to the paper.
However, the updated version restated the wording of the 2019 code which noted that it was of “paramount importance” that ministers provide “accurate and truthful information to parliament” and should offer their resignation to the prime minister if they fail to do so.
Tim Durrant, associate director for the Institute for Government think-tank said the updated measures marked a “sensible approach”.
“The requirement for ministers to resign if found to have broken the code is still within this updated version,” he said. “What we have now however, is a bit more nuance and an explicit recognition that there are varying degrees of breaches of the code, so various possible sanctions and approaches can be taken such as a public apology”.
Several Conservative MPs have called on Johnson to step aside including Stephen Hammond, Sir Bob Neill, David Simmonds and John Baron following the publication of Gray’s findings.