Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser has said “you can never say never” to the idea of investigating the prime minister should serious allegations about conduct arise.
Sir Laurie Magnus told MPs that while he required the PM’s permission to mount an inquiry into alleged violations of the ministerial code, he believed it would only be withheld if there was a “very, very good reason”.
He told MPs on Thursday: “Very importantly, I have the ability to recommend to the prime minister that there should be an investigation. One would normally expect that he would agree to that unless there was a public interest reason for not doing that.”
Defending his powers at the public administration committee, Sir Laurie said it would become a “very difficult area” if a case arose where he was asked to investigate a potential breach of the code by Mr Sunak himself.
“I think it is pretty unlikely, I would hope, that that would happen in this case. If it did I would have to react accordingly,” he said. “It would have to be some serious allegation of breach of the code. I think it is unlikely. Obviously you can never say never.”
Sir Laurie was appointed to the post of independent adviser on ministers’ interests in December following a lengthy delay after Lord Geidt became the second adviser to quit under Boris Johnson because the then PM refused to accept his advice.
Since he took on the role, Sir Laurie has already carried out one inquiry which resulted in the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi after the MP failed to declare he was under investigation over his tax affairs while he was chancellor.
Sir Laurie said there was “greater rigour” is needed in the way the ministers’ interests are monitored and reported – admitting the current system depends on ministers being “good chaps” and being honest.
“I think you have to rely on their honesty, their compliance with the seven principles of public life. You are relying on the ‘good chap’ approach,” he said.
Sir Laurie said Mr Sunak had asked him to open an inquiry after newspaper reporting of Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs and he had not needed to initiate an investigation himself.
“By the time I received the instruction I expected an instruction would be coming. I thought I probably wouldn’t need to ask for this,” he said.
Sir Laurie also disclosed that he had taken over an investigation started by Lord Geidt into a complaint made by Tory MP Nus Ghani of alleged Islamophobia by Mark Spencer when he was the government chief whip.
The Liberal Democrats renewed their call for Sir Laurie to investigate Mr Johnson over his failure to declare a £800,000 credit facility while at No 10.
But a spokesman for Mr Johnson has rejected any suggestion there had been breach of the MPs’ code of conduct, arguing that he made all the “necessary declarations he was required to make”.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have called on Mr Sunak to cancel Mr Johnson’s Partygate inquiry legal defence fund, as analysis by the party revealed the £220,000 covered by taxpayers could have been used to fund over 88,500 free school meals for children.
Lib Dem chief Wendy Chamberlain MP said: “It is outrageous that children are left to go hungry in school while the government forks out over £200,000 on legal fees for Boris Johnson, after he broke the law and lied about it. Rishi Sunak needs to allow the Ethics Adviser to investigate his conduct.”