Matt Hancock, sleaze and public perceptions: what political standards survey revealed

The pandemic has eroded public trust in MPs’ ethical standards

Former health secretary Matt Hancock
(Image credit: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Matt Hancock are associated with sleaze in the minds of the public, according to a survey for the body that advises Downing Street on ethical standards.

The politicians were branded as “immediately associated with the word ‘sleaze’” and not in possession of “the core values expected from political leaders” in the view of the public. Those were the findings of a report on the survey conducted for the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL).

Participants in the poll of 1,590 people, conducted by Deltapoll on behalf of the committee, said the pandemic had exposed “poor behaviour” by politicians that would have otherwise “gone unnoticed”. This included breaches of lockdown rules and “cronyism” in the award of public procurement contracts to ministers’ friends, reported The Telegraph.

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It said that the “erosion” of public trust in ministers and MPs to behave ethically had been “exacerbated by Covid”, with many “visibly angry as they recounted the strict pandemic rules they had to follow, which they believed were disregarded by various politicians who subsequently faced few or no consequences”.

One participant said: “When you mentioned sleaze I straight away thought about Matt Hancock… it seems like one rule for them and different ethical standards, morals and etiquette for everybody else. It’s all according to class, power and money.”

Another said that former prime minister Cameron came to mind when “thinking about corruption” after he faced questioning from parliamentary committees over his lobbying on behalf of financial services company Greensill Capital before it went bust.

In total, 41% of respondents felt ministers’ standards of conduct were quite low or very low, compared with 24% who felt they were quite or very high. For MPs, public perception of standards was even lower: 44% of the public felt that standards were quite or very low, and just 20% felt they were quite or very high.

The main report, Upholding Standards in Public Life, published on Monday, recommended tougher sanctions for politicians with “poor ethical standards”.

In his foreword, Lord Evans, the CSPL chairman and a former MI5 director general, said it had “become clear that a system of standards regulation which relies on convention is no longer satisfactory”.

The public would welcome a “greater adherence” to ethical rules and felt that “a strong regulatory body” that could sanction the government for rule breaches was currently “missing”, said the report. They also thought there were not enough sanctions in place when politicians did breach ethical standards rules.

The report called for a “greater independence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code” and asked the government to take a more “formal and professional approach to its own ethics obligations”.

In response, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said the government had “committed to continually reinforcing high standards of conduct in public life so the public can have trust and confidence in the operation of government at all levels”. They added that they would “carefully consider” the work of the committee and update parliament in due course.

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