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“Should I stay or should I go?”

Updated: May 26, 2022

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I wonder if this classic from The Clash is on Mr Johnson’s playlist at the moment? The question is certainly being raised by senior Conservatives, never mind by the Opposition.

But while getting rid of Mr Johnson might seem the most appealing option right now to some in the Conservative government, chucking this particular Jonah overboard won’t stop the storm. For the country it would probably be the worst option. Certainly, for British democracy. And I’m not saying that as an advocate for the Tory’s most affable mascot. I’m saying it because Boris isn’t the problem. What we’re facing isn’t a problem person but a problem pattern.

Patterns or mistakes

Those of us working in OD, LD and HR are familiar with the notion of ‘problem patterns’ which can beset organisations. And the same applies to the institutions of government.

This week Mr Johnson offered a “heartfelt apology” over a Downing Street party. Even without the benefit of Sue Gray’s investigation, it seems this was one of a number of ‘lockdown’ parties, making it look less like a mistake, and more like evidence of a pattern. A pattern stemming from a culture which, in Sir John Major’s recent words, is one of “We’re the masters now”.

A fair description of an administration that seems to consider itself untouchable and unaccountable. An administration that considers integrity dispensable.

“Integrity promotes trust, and trust promotes good governance; without integrity, public trust decreases which ‘throws sand in the wheels of the government machinery” [i]

No wonder Senior Conservatives are anxious about the sand storm currently swirling in the “wheels of government machinery”, and the damage to public trust.

But does that make it a pattern?

The evidence is hard to ignore. Remember another recent apology from the PM over the video featuring Allegra Stratton joking with other No 10 officials about another Downing Street party?

You’ll probably also remember the PM’s apology for “the mistake” in his government’s initial handling of the Owen Patterson incident. The Standards Committee found Mr Patterson had been making considerable sums of money from organisations on whose behalf he’d engaged in paid advocacy. And the PM’s response? He ordered Conservative MPs to reject the Committee’s call for Mr Patterson’s suspension, and instead scheduled a vote to replace the standards scrutiny process and exonerate Mr Patterson. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, even proposed that Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, should “consider her position”.

The vote went in the government’s favour, until a tsunami of ‘corruption’ accusations prompted a U-turn. But the damage to public trust in the government’s integrity was done. The North Shropshire by-election for Mr Patterson’s former seat, saw the Conservative’s majority of nearly 23,000 overturned.

But again, does that make it a pattern? Well, looking back over the last couple of years, other incidents are hard to ignore.

There remain suspicions of ‘cronyism’ following urgently awarded contracts for PPE [ii]; more recently has been the controversy surrounding funding for refurbishing the Prime Minister’s flat; there was the government’s dismissal of the inquiry findings upholding allegations of bullying by Home Secretary, Priti Patel; the PM’s dismissal of the findings by 11 Supreme Court judges that his proroguing of parliament was unlawful. And on the international stage, the government’s apparent readiness to discount legally binding obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol. Little surprise that Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Deputy head of the government, said that countries doing trade deals with the UK need to be warned that it is a nation that "doesn't necessarily keep its word".

The pattern of an administration that considers itself unaccountable, untouchable and ambivalent about the truth, seems inescapable. And the evidence from across government suggests it’s more a structural and cultural feature of this Conservative administration than simply the poor judgement of the PM. Or even a bunch of bad apples in different departments holding parties. Research suggests that when integrity breaks down and unethical practice creeps in, it’s rarely the result of “bad people” acting alone “but the institutions that make it possible.” [iii]

Research also suggests that individuals’ integrity and ethical behaviour is evident as people interact with the “event cycles sanctioned by, and embedded in, the organisation’s systems and processes” [iv]. So, when people went out with a suitcase to bring back booze for a Downing Street lockdown party, they were almost certainly acting consistently with the culture they experienced in the Johnson government.

So what?

Even if parting with Mr Johnson appeals to some senior Conservatives, it’s clear that it risks leaving more fundamental integrity issues unaddressed.

For those of us who are practitioners of OD, LD and HR, it seems the familiar measures that help sustain integrity in organisations also apply to government and No:10. So, whether or not Boris is replaced, will senior Conservatives have the courage to acknowledge where the administration’s structural and cultural integrity vulnerabilities lie?

By ‘structural integrity’, I mean not only the integrity of policies and practices, but also integrity in how those policies are implemented.

By cultural integrity, I mean those unspoken beliefs, assumptions, values and norms which legitimise or invalidate certain behaviours. The Shropshire by-election result undoubtably made the Conservatives aware of at least one aspect the Johnson government’s culture which is very much a liability.

But if Boris is replaced, in order to rebuild public trust in the government, those choosing his successor would be wise to be on the lookout for what Psychologists know as ‘the dark triad’; three separate, interrelated and not uncommon personality traits, which undermine integrity.

· Narcissism: self-serving behaviour, low in empathy, and hypersensitive to criticism.

· Machiavellianism: advocates of manipulation and duplicity.

· Psychopathy: sub-clinical traits of psychopathy such as a lack of empathy or remorse, being manipulative and volatile.

Over Christmas, instead of The Sound of Music, our family watched Chernobyl. Less ‘feelgood’ and no memorable songs, but hauntingly pertinent. It depicts the events in 1986 leading up to and following the catastrophic explosion at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The drama acknowledges the sacrifice, skill and resolve of those who acted to limit the devastation. But it also highlights the fact that driving the inevitability of the disaster, and threatening to undermine the clean-up was a political institution that considered itself unaccountable, preoccupied with self-preservation, denying uncomfortable and inconvenient truth, until no more lies could be told.

In the closing scenes, the scientist who tried to direct the clean-up, Valery Alekseyevich Legasov, tells the official inquiry “When the truth offends, we lie…and lie…until we can no longer remember it is even there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid”.

I’ve a sneaky feeling the debt collectors will soon be at the door of No:10, for Mr Johnson if not for the Conservative administration he leads.


[i] Nieuwenburg, P. (2007). “The Integrity Paradox.” Public Integrity 9 (3): 213–24. doi:10.2753/PIN1099-9922090301.) Cited in: Robinson, T., Cadzow, L., Kirby, N., (May 2018) University of Oxford: Building Integrity Programme: INVESTIGATING INTEGRITY: A MULTI-DISCIPLINARY LITERATURE REVIEW: Working Paper (p13) [ii] UK National Audit Office Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic.(18 November 2020) [iii] Lessig, L. (2011). Republic, lost: How money corrupts congress and a plan to stop it. New York: Hachette. [iv] Gillespie, N. & Dietz, G. (2009) Trust Repair After An Organization-Level Failure: Academy of Management Review Vol. 34, No. 1 Published Online:1 Jan 2009

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