Geidt 'wanted no part' in Boris Johnson plan to breach ministerial code

UK prime minister considered action risking deliberate breach of his own ministerial code, Lord Geidt said as he quit as ethics adviser

Lord Christopher Geidt, who has stepped down from his position as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's adviser on ministers' interests, a day after he appeared in front of a cross-party committee of MPs. PA
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Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser resigned because the British prime minister had put in him an “odious” position by asking him to approve a “deliberate” breach of the ministerial code over a trade issue, it was revealed on Thursday.

Lord Christopher Geidt’s resignation could cause a crisis for Mr Johnson, who is already under severe pressure following the partygate scandal.

This is the second resignation of an ethics adviser to Mr Johnson in the last year, raising questions over his continued role as prime minister.

A brief statement on Lord Geidt's resignation was published on Wednesday evening, but the 21-word statement left the reason for his departure a mystery until the exchange of letters with the prime minister was published as the government came under pressure to provide clarity.

Lord Geidt had already been considering his future in the position following questions over the prime minister’s conduct after he was fined by the police for breaking lockdown rules at a Downing Street party.

The ministerial interests adviser said in his resignation letter to the prime minister that he had been only credibly clinging to the role “by a very small margin” due to partygate.

But in the excoriating letter, he pointedly stated that he could not countenance a “deliberate and purposeful” breach of the ministerial code, implying that Mr Johnson had asked him to approve of this breach, potentially over Chinese steel tariffs.

“A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end,” he wrote.

“This would make a mockery not only of respect for the code but licences the suspension of its provisions in governing the conduct of Her Majesty’s ministers. I can have no part in this.

“I therefore resign from this appointment with immediate effect.”

In his response, Mr Johnson said his intention has been to “seek your advice on the national interest protecting a crucial national industry”.

This issue was protected in other European countries and Britain would “suffer material harm if we do not continue to apply such tariffs”.

Downing Street has cited “commercial sensitivity” in not naming what the tariff issue might be, which could indicate Britain would have been in breach of World Trade Organisation rules.

But the prime minister’s official spokesman told the media that it was “a critical national industry at risk of material harm if the government does not take action, affecting businesses and livelihoods”.

Who could replace Boris Johnson if he leaves?

Who could replace Boris Johnson if he leaves?

“You will appreciate it remains a level of commercial sensitivity to a specific issue which both Lord Geidt and the prime minister referred to in their exchange of letters,” he said.

Downing Street insisted the dispute was not linked to the financial interests of Mr Johnson or any minister.

The spokesman confirmed Mr Johnson was “surprised” after being informed of Lord Geidt's resignation on Wednesday afternoon.

Mr Johnson’s letter said the issue concerned “potential future decisions” by the Trade Remedies Authority, which investigates whether new remedies are required to prevent injury to British industries caused by unfair trading practices.

While the government has refused to disclose the issue, there is a suggestion it could be related to tariffs on Chinese steel which the authority had recommended removing.

This led to protests from Britain’s steel industry, and the Department of Trade and Industry overruled the authority.

Lord Geidt also referred to Mr Johnson’s failure to address whether he broke the ministerial code when he made his statement to Parliament on partygate.

“Despite being repeatedly questioned in the House of Commons about your obligations under the ministerial code (after paying a fixed penalty notice), your responses again made no reference to it,” he wrote.

Fleur Anderson, the Labour frontbench MP who raised an Urgent Question in Parliament over the resignation, called it an “embarrassment” that “degraded” Britain’s democracy.

“The prime minister has now driven out of his hand-picked ethics advisers to resign in despair — it's a badge of shame for this government,” she added.

Lord Geidt’s letter of resignation in full

This is Lord Geidt’s letter of resignation to Mr Johnson.

Dear Prime Minister,

I appeared before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in Parliament yesterday. I was glad for the opportunity to give an account of the recent changes to the Ministerial Code, to the Terms of Reference of the Independent Adviser and to the support for the Office of the Independent Adviser.

I was asked at length about my recent annual report. I alluded to my frustration, as made clear in my preface, that you had not made any public reference to your own conduct under the Ministerial Code in the period since inquiries were under way. This would be especially important in the event that the Metropolitan Police found against you, which they did, and/or that Sue Gray’s report included criticism of behaviour within the scope of the Ministerial Code, which it did.

Your letter in response to my annual report was welcome. It addressed the absence of comment by you about your obligations under that Ministerial Code up until that point. You explained that, by paying a fixed term penalty, you had not breached the Ministerial Code. The letter did not, however, address specifically the criticism in Sue Gray’s report about your adherence to the Nolan Principles (on leadership, in particular). Neither did the letter make mention that, despite being repeatedly questioned in the House of Commons about your obligations under the Ministerial Code (after paying a fixed penalty notice), your responses again made no reference to it.

I reported to the select committee yesterday that I was satisfied that you had responded to my annual report to explain your position. I am disappointed, however, that the account you gave was not fuller, as noted above. Moreover, I regret the reference to “miscommunication” between our offices, with the implication that I was somehow responsible for you not being fully aware of my concerns. These inconsistencies and deficiencies notwithstanding, I believed that it was possible to continue credibly as independent adviser, albeit by a very small margin.

This week, however, I was tasked to offer a view about the government’s intention to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code. This request has placed me in an impossible and odious position. My informal response on Monday was that you and any other minister should justify openly your position vis-a-vis the code in such circumstances. However, the idea that a prime minister might to any degree be in the business of deliberately breaching his own code is an affront. A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end. This would make a mockery not only of respect for the code but licence the suspension of its provisions in governing the conduct of Her Majesty’s ministers. I can have no part in this. Because of my obligation as a witness in Parliament, this is the first opportunity I have had to act on the government’s intentions. I therefore resign from this appointment with immediate effect.

Yours Sincerely,

The Rt Hon Lord Geidt

Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

Boris Johnson’s letter in response to Lord Geidt in full

Here is Mr Johnson’s letter responding to the resignation of Lord Geidt as his ministerial interests adviser in full:

Dear Lord Geidt,

I was sorry to receive your letter of resignation yesterday. I want to thank you for your service. When we spoke on Monday, you said that you were content to remain until the end of the year. So your letter came as a surprise.

You say that you were put in an impossible position regarding my seeking your advice on potential future decisions related to the Trade Remedies Authority. My intention was to seek your advice on the national interest in protecting a crucial industry, which is protected in other European countries and would suffer material harm if we do not continue to apply such tariffs. This has in the past had cross party support. It would be in line with our domestic law but might be seen to conflict with our obligations under the [World Trade Organisation]. In seeking your advice before any decision was taken, I was looking to ensure that we acted properly with due regard to the Ministerial code.

You have carried out your duties admirably under very difficult circumstances. We have discussed the burdens placed on you by this increasingly public role, and the pressures that would be felt by anyone in your position. On behalf of the government, I would like to renew my thanks for all your work.

Yours sincerely,

Boris Johnson

Updated: June 16, 2022, 5:12 PM