What does the resignation of the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser, Lord Gater – and the paltry impact it has had – tell us about the UK’s executive power?
Juvenal has a Latin motto, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” (who will guard the guardian). Alan Moore, the greatest comic book writer, translated it as “Watchmen”. This is a problem that every constitutional order—ancient or modern, real or imagined—must address, and the solution is always elusive.
In the UK, we have the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s an odd position, as important as it is. The role has little legal recognition, and few Acts of Parliament even mention it. The Prime Minister’s powers come from the fusion of two constitutional sources.
The first is royal prerogative. This includes the theoretical right of the monarchy to organize the state. In practice, this means that the then prime minister can appoint and remove ministers, control cabinet affairs and even decide what to tell other ministers or what not to tell other ministers.
The second is parliamentary supremacy. This meant that the government at the time generally had control over which legislation was passed and which revenue was increased.
So a prime minister who is in charge of both government and parliament has the greatest gift the British constitution can bestow.
However, in order not to let this absolute power absolutely corrupt the administration, various means have been tried from time to time. One is the so-called “Ministerial Code”, which sets out the rules for ministers’ conduct and has its own expert adviser, who will be a distinguished and independent public servant.
The problem is that code and advisors have no autonomy. The password is what the Prime Minister said. Passwords, like advisors, are the product of the Prime Minister. The prime minister’s opposition cannot be investigated, and advisers cannot insist on getting their way. Outstanding civil servants are no longer servants of the public, but servants of the Prime Minister.
Neglected or frustrated ministerial behaviour advisers have only one real power left: the way they leave. Because only through their resignation can they have a voice that can be heard by the rest of the political and media classes to warn that something serious is going on.
Last week, the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newest adviser did make a splash in a short period of time. Outgoing adviser Christopher Geidt also made clear the reasons for his resignation. Lord Gait said the generals had deliberately breached the ministerial code. This was not an accidental non-compliance incident, but a deliberate one, in the face of serious opposition.
The resignation was supposed to cause a political stir, spark a crisis, and perhaps the resignation of the prime minister. But this departure has hardly occurred outside the political and media classes, and even their attention has quickly shifted. The resignation should be alarming: in the end, it caused hardly any murmurs.
In reality, the prime minister and his supporters simply dismissed the resignation. In fact, instead of resigning now, the prime minister is trying to escape this turbulent form of oversight.
The means of the Code of Ministers and their advisors are always fig leaves, obscuring the true nature of the original executive power below.
So the question of ancient and modern China and foreign countries has always existed: how to guard against those in power? Who looks at those who look at you?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.