Mrs Maychiavelli. Has the prime minister breached the Ministerial Code?

David Dring takes a look at the potential constitutional impropriety of Theresa May’s conduct on Brexit, and considers whether she may even have breached the Ministerial Code. David is a Conservative Party member and active contributor to the Bruges Group’s Facebook discussion group. 

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Hover through the fog and filthy air”Macbeth, William Shakespeare

There is an unpleasant cloud of distrust hovering over Westminster.

We are now at the point in time when our prime minister and government should have been emerging triumphant from the Brexit negotiations, delivering upon a vision of a confident new global Britain. Theresa May could have been taking her place as the champion of free trade in the modern world.

But sadly this is where reality kicks in.

We could not be further from the goals outlined in Mrs May’s speeches: Lancaster House (January 2017), Florence (September 2017), and most recently Mansion House (March 2018).

The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), having worked for months to the guidelines outlined by those speeches, suddenly discovered that there was a new plan. The so-called Chequers plan emerged in July 2018, devised behind the backs of DExEU ministers.

Worse still, this Chequers plan was presented to Cabinet less than 48 hours before being formally discussed, barely leaving Cabinet ministers enough time to comprehend the full implications of the text. During the Cabinet discussion it was suggested that an amendment be made to one area of the blueprint, to which the PM reportedly responded, “No, that’s not possible, because I’ve already cleared it [the existing text] with Mrs Merkel.”

Unsurprisingly, both Brexit Secretary David Davis and Brexit minister Steve Baker resigned within hours of this discussion, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson following Davis out of the Cabinet a day later.

Discussing the UK’s negotiating strategy with a foreign leader before presenting the plan to Cabinet, as well as bypassing the Secretary of State responsible for Brexit, would not only be inconsistent with the protocols of Cabinet government. It would also represent a breach of the Ministerial Code.

The UK’s lead negotiator, Olly Robbins, in his appearance before the Exiting the European Union Select Committee in July, confirmed that the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit had prepared the Chequers plan without the knowledge of the Secretary of State, but with the full authorisation of the prime minister.

Fast forward to November and the publication of the draft Withdrawal Agreement. The old adage suggests that “history repeats itself” – and how right it was.

Just as with the previous Cabinet bounce of Chequers, the PM delivered the draft Withdrawal Agreement in a glorious 585 pages of unadulterated legal gobbledygook, and attempted to secure Cabinet approval within just hours. She despatched Secretary of State Dominic Raab to Brussels to sign off on the agreement. But Raab was not to be bounced quite so easily. Within hours, there was yet another Cabinet vacancy for Brexit Secretary.

Raab has stated his reasons for resigning very clearly in his subsequent media interviews. In particular, he cited the addition of key clauses to the agreement which he had neither seen nor authorised. If Raab’s account is accurate, it would appear that the PM again breached the Ministerial Code, by failing to consult with her Secretary of State.

This conduct has attracted the attention of a number of concerned MPs. Sir William Cash, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, asked a series of questions to the PM throughout November following her Brexit statements to the House. Sir Bernard Jenkin did the same at the Liaison Select Committee on 29 November [at 1:23:00 in video].

However, the prime minister has thus far refused to answer or even acknowledge any question of impropriety. This has led the European Scrutiny Committee to launch an inquiry into the conduct surrounding the negotiations.

The prime minister is also under fire for refusing to publish in full the legal advice to the Withdrawal Agreement. This is likely to result in a charge of “Acting in Contempt of Parliament” to be sent to the Speaker in the next few days.

The principles enshrined in the Ministerial Code have been the cornerstone of good governance, ethics and integrity for generations. The idea that any PM would attempt to override the provisions of the Code is abhorrent.

If it is proven that this has indeed taken place, then Mrs Maychiavelli’s place in history will be assured.

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  1. Cath smalleyReply

    Surely their is a legal route to challenge Teresa May she has lied to not only to parliament but to the voters she has brought the office of prime minister into disrepute and should be sacked immediately

  2. Elizabeth TaylorReply

    Horrified that such betrayal by The Prime Minister can be allowed to go on for so long without consequences to her position, democracy is dead if she is allowed to get away with it, to go to a foreign power to discuss this before own own cabinet is an utter disgrace, undermining the cabinet, please put in place a primeminister whom knows what they are doing, not some idiot whom puts the EU before the UK, she ought to be tried and hung for treason

    • Adam HileyReply

      Blair got away with Iraq Major with Maastrict Thatcher with the Single Market Act and Heath dragged us into the Euro crapper back in 1972 now May thinks She will try and bullshit

  3. OwenReply

    She must think that she is an EU minister, where such behaviour seems to be de rigueur, not a Minister under the Crown of England!

  4. Adam HileyReply

    Theresa May has to go now so We can leave the EU & ECHR immediately May is even ignoring the rules of Her office now We do not need another General Election or another bogus illegitimate Referendum We need someone like Boris Johnson Jacob Rees Mogg or David Davis , Dominic Grieve and Kier Starmer are shallow self serving fools who need to be shown the door at the next election in 2022 the Fixed Term Act forbids another election until then

  5. Steven DitchburnReply

    It is very obvious that Traitorous May has planned this charade from day 1 leaving the country in such a bad position now with limited resources in place and no time. She needs removing today and charged with treason if found guilty.

  6. Graham ForbesReply

    The Brexit negotiations have been a lesson in incompetence from the start. May has shown herself to be a sycophant of the Commission, time and time again. One has to conclude that a conspiracy was afoot with her election to PM, which can be laid squarely at the feet of Gove. Had that little snide not stabbed Boris in the back, Boris could well have been negotiating for UK rather than May. May in turn has acted like a dictator singing off the same song sheet as the EU Commission, but obscured through smoke, mirrors and lies. Britain must not go into the next phase (almost sure with the WA rejected by Parliament) with May at the helm.
    The default position is a no-deal, enacted after the approval of Artical 50, the WA is only an amendment to that default. We must have a pro-Brexit leader. Boris, David Davis or JRM would be my choice, to fullfill the will of the people.

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